“Classical strategic planning is based upon the assumption of a slowly changing future. This assumption is wrong.”
We currently witness the beginning of a new era. It has been given various names, as nobody is yet able to predict its nature. It’s been called the conceptual age, information is not enough anymore. Relationships become more important, where “knowledge stacks are replaced by knowledge flows”. Abundance, connections and choice change the game: “Mass is dead. Here comes weird.”
It’s a paradigm shift. We haven't yet figured out where it will lead our kind, as we can not predict the future. Two things are clear about the outcome:
It will be emergent and powered by software.
Which might make it worthwhile to look at business the way software developers do, and how that view changed over the last few decades. I’ll draw a line from software development to business transformations in general, and where these should lead us.
What’s Special About Software Development?
“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Yogi Berra, Baseball Catcher
When companies started to develop software, they wanted to automate work that had been done manually before. The method they employed seemed straightforward: analyse the problem, model a solution, automate that model. But wait: More often than not, users of these systems started to claim changes. We found that users wanted to use the software we had written for purposes that we had not expected. This created a reinforcing loop: Today, most innovations in software solve previously non-existing problems—making predictions harder and harder.
Nonetheless, we tried harder to “design” the future. But no matter how much effort we put into better predicting the future, we did not find the silver bullet that made our intended future happen. We refined scientific management but only came up with busier people, instead of better solutions. We found out the hard way that in a complex domain, best practices are not appropriate anymore.
Where Agile Came From
Then some people tried a different approach: experimentation combined with empirical process control. This approach succeeded and evolved into a mindset we call Agile. Agile is a set of values and principles based on complexity thinking. As software became more complex, we adapted our practices until they evolved into Agile. Instead of trying to anticipate the future we wish would come, we work with quick feedback cycles to frame actions as safe-to-fail experiments and validate our learning. This way we can frequently check if we developed something of value. This approach did not only work well with the software we created, but also for the organisational changes it inspired in companies adopting Agile.
Applying this experience in the field, over the years, the agile community learned useful lessons about organisational change. How a classical, hierarchical structure can be transformed into a fluid, innovative system. Such an enterprise will “operate balanced at the knife-edge of maximum effectiveness, on the optimal cusp between orderly working and chaotic collapse.”
Most businesses today struggle with change. Most strategies that made businesses successful do not work anymore today, or might not work anymore in the future. The complexity that hit software development in the 80s and 90s hits nearly all industries today. I think we should learn from agile examples.
Yet what should we transform into? We do not yet know where the paradigm shift will lead us. Do we need to know? I do not think so, for two reasons:
Making your organisation adaptive to change will make it resilient to whatever the future holds. And: there is a purpose which will be valid for any kind of future: We should make this world a better place. If you think that’s not your business, consider the alternative: do you want your organisation to make things worse?
An economist phrased it this way: “I call this positive paradigm betterness; in contrast with business, it’s not about being busier and busier (to what end?) but about becoming better. I believe it’s the next step in the evolution of prosperity and that its foundational principle is living lives that matter in human terms. [...] So let’s roll up our sleeves and reimagine prosperity for the twenty-first century.”
This is our purpose. Let’s change the world.
Sources of Inspiration
Thank you Umair Haque, Andrea Provaglio, Bob Marshall, Dave Snowden and many others to inspire me with ideas that went into this post. Special Thanks to Paolo Perrotta for reviewing and editing it with me!