11 janvier 2024

Agility is dead. 10000 years ago.

Are you fighting to really adopt an agile mindset in your company? The difficulties you are encountering might be going all the way back to the opposition between nomadism and sedentarism from humanity’s past. The bad news is that thousands of years of culture are piling against you. The good news is that you are not alone.

In the wake of finding a new home, I have been asking myself: “Why more? – space, equipment, costs”; Or, more accurately: “more of what?” Like many people, I love being comfortable in the place where I live and work; where I spend a fair share of my time. Over the years, I came to realize that I would never be happier than when I wake up outside, sleeping under the stars or in the back of my – basic – van. With a minimal outfit, freedom is not only material but also mental. Many barriers vanish.

From a sociological perspective, nomadism and sedentarism are strong antagonists. The former will cherish their freedom and the confidence in their ability to sort out, with scarce resources, whatever new challenge the day will bring. The latter will prefer to trust their strong walls. They will acquire equipment to protect themselves against any events and be proud of the treasures they accumulate.

Sedentarism has won. Nomadism is nowadays mainly associated with poverty – we say “homelessness” in the West – and a few remote tribes. However, in North Africa, I have witnessed how some people have a cultural spirit of freedom strongly ingrained, even if they would have all the economic and intellectual means to live a “comfortable” city life. Not to mention the new trend of digital nomads remotely working with their Paris team while enjoying Thai life in the evening. If sedentarism has won the culture war, nomadism is still ingrained deep in some of us.

But what does it mean for organizations?

Most companies claim to be agile. But few have deeply embraced a radical transformation to become true to agile core values. One hypothesis explaining this missed target is that most companies stick to an organization shaped by agriculture-driven civilizations. They are focused on growing larger and larger, believing they can master their future, and be precisely governed through hierarchy and planning. They reproduce the schema of our sedentarist society.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari offers an enlightening perspective on the nomad/sedentary dualism. To summarize, the invention of agriculture settled the population. Soon, villages and cities conquered the land, and this way of living prevailed. However, Harari asks a question: who lived happier? Was it the nomad, with a small tribe, fishing, hunting, and vegetable gathering? Their life might have been more often exposed to natural events, but they are imagined to have had much lighter “working hours” (4h a day). Or was the farmer happier? They slept in a dry bed and quickly grew large families to harvest the crop. They built alliances and cities to protect themselves and were subject to less frequent yet more radical natural disasters. But the work was harder (constant effort), and living in larger groups in close proximity created other issues, like sanitation. Harari proposes his answer, and I feel the same: go nomad!

I am not an interior design architect, even less a sociologist or a historian. I am only an IT guy – sometimes an architect, developer, oracle, or corporate shrink. But reflecting on my nomad self shed a new light on how we drive IT product delivery in the corporate world. And it might explain how some barriers to adopting a proper agile mindset are, in fact, deeply rooted in our culture.

When coming to the end of writing this post, I realized that I was sailing on a ferry towards Greece – sleeping on the deck – on my way to a three-week archeology campaign to study the wake of our civilization – the left image is a pavement from the dawn of the bronze age. Funny coincidences…

Plan vs. Adapt

Agriculture is all about planning for the year, while a nomad requires a «from day to day» mindset.

When launching a new product, users’ “needs” are collected. In practice, we seldom talk to them face to face, but we imagine solutions “to make their life better.” A roadmap for the trimester, or the entire year, is then agreed upon. To translate this plan into an “agile” way, the method is simply to break down the x months/years backlog into defined two-week sprints. The underlying reason is that we feel the need for a precise plan. This precision is perceived as quality and seriousness. It provides a sensation of security. And this feeling is natural for the farmer planning for the year or the city urbanist.

But as we all know, in IT, such a story is a fable. Who has ever seen a 26 series of two-week pre-planned sprints realized by the end of the year? The corporate world is not as predictable as the succession of seasons. With such a strict approach, do we actually address the user’s and company’s needs? Are we learning along the way to adapt the project course, pivot, or even stop it early? Projects are filled with unknowns at the start of their life. Those get clearer as the project progresses. Shouldn’t we be able to shift the plan based on what those unknowns end up telling us?

Of course, we need some planning! We need estimations to decide where to invest and to plan when the first outcomes will be visible and usable. But we shall acknowledge that planning is approximative. The company’s raison d’être shall not be to follow a PowerPoint Gantt chart; it is instead to build a product benefiting both the user and the organization. The plan is only a governance hint. The real question is: “Are we putting our resources where it is the most efficient for us?” As long as we continuously answer “yes,” we shall move forward, even if the journey follows an unplanned longer path or cuts some detours.

In a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world), precision planning is a fallacy. Around the corporate table, everyone is aware of it,  but it is very painful for many to let go of the illusion that one can control the future. It is hard to look ahead, embrace uncertainties, and trust in our competences to overcome them.

In this first dimension, we can see opposition between the sedentary mindset, who seeks to control the environment, and the nomad, who will naturally adapt to it.

Budget planning

Together with the planning curse comes the budget diktat. The organization lives by the yearly spreadsheet, mixing predictions, objectives, and evaluations on the same lines [1]. But there might be a more profound reason for the intellectual paralysis we face when addressing budget issues. Besides the need for control, there is a profound desire to accumulate. To accumulate the most possible!

The top priority for most companies is not to be present in one hundred years, with happy customers and employees proud of their products [2]. The emphasis is on short-term growth, not true sustainability.

Let’s be clear: we need budget control and prioritization! As Bjarte Bogsnes proposes, we could focus on the movement, make resources available when needed, and avoid fixed and cascaded targets. And there again, we see the parallel with the nomads, whose resources are constantly adapted depending on the situation. Moreover, some nomad societies turn toward anarcho-communitarianism, sharing resources among the tribe – while keeping some lighter formal hierarchies. In our modern corporate world, we could call such a model holacracy or flat structures.

“The More, the Merrier” vs. “Less is More”

“When carrying your belongings, you would rather have the minimum load possible. But not less than the minimum” – Albert Einstein (*)

You might raise an eyebrow – or worse – when hearing their name, but one thing for sure is that Gartner, PMI, and the Standish Group know how to collect figures. According to them (and many other sources), between five and seven out of ten IT projects fail to some extent. The same numbers apply to features that will never or rarely be used. Some people pretend that the same estimations stand for the outputs we produce daily in our corporate lives. Part of the overproduction waste – a lean muda – is collateral to the planning and budget diktat described in the previous section. However, another cultural trait is involved: wealth accumulation is a symbol of power and accomplishment. The shiniest the product is, the more features it contains, the more fulfilled we feel. 

Building useless features is a waste of resources, and we underestimate the added complexity created. Run, maintenance, and evolution costs will also be higher. Plus, building features never used bears an opportunity cost that is never evaluated. 

As mentioned before, one solution is to be ready to adapt the plan on the go. “You Ain’t Gonna Need It” (YAGNI) is a motto describing this pattern. But we should also push further on, ready to throw away unnecessary features as soon as possible, even if there is a short-term cost. The sedentary typically has no storage issue – the attic is immense – so this reflex is counterintuitive. On the other hand, resources are scarce in a nomad life, and carrying their belongings around has a direct impact on mobility, hence survival. It will, therefore, be more natural to build a minimal version, test it, and decide whether to improve or drop it. And trimming the fat of what we decide to keep is as important.

Light Autonomous Team vs. “Classic” Organization

“When in the field, we must cover all our needs. When facing a particular situation, whoever is the most expert is granted team leadership, rank does not apply” – Sgt X, French Special Ops (another nomad species).

Let’s define a “classic” organization as being both functionally organized – some say “siloed” – and with a clear top-down hierarchy. Of course, such patterns make sense for plenty of efficiency reasons. However, it also mimics our society’s organization. We have been hiding behind walls for millennia. People have specializations; their titles define them, and we are used to turning to them for any problem. As a result, our societies have been organized with clear hierarchies, from the top – call it king, tsar, president, prime minister – down to the bottom. Even in the most radical democracies, such structures prevail.

However, nothing says that this organization is best suited to deliver IT products. Abundant literature [3] has shown how an autonomous cross-functional team with the proper governance is more efficient than a set of specialized teams. Painfully enough, such a paradigm violently conflicts with our multi-millennial sedentary culture. This conflict is undoubtedly the main reason why agility does not truly percolate in the corporate world.

Once we have dealt with the bandwagon effect – “we’ve always done it that way” – we can turn to the recipe for success. Many companies, large or small, have bent in that direction. As for the nomad group wandering in the wild, they have designed groups to be self-sufficient. We call them “cross-functional autonomous teams,” the building block of a truly agile organization.

An expert or nothing

There is also a mindset leap in an autonomous team. When you face a tricky situation, you don’t always need to call in an expert. Skill level is, of course, valued, but so is the capacity to learn and take ownership. 

As a European living in Silicon Valley, I was amazed by the lack of fear of trying new things – not only in the tech world. More impressive for the foreigner, individuals fixing their motorcycles, crafting silver jewels, or going carp fishing were actively encouraged by the community and professionals. Go try to ask a French fisherman for tips, just to see… Of course, I don’t want everyone to master brain surgery, but in the IT world, we would all benefit from moving sideways more often. We shall vote for a T-shape.

Trusting the team to find a solution is vital for a group on the move. In many cases, they will not be able to call for help. Unfortunately, being comfortable addressing the unknown is, once again, contrary to our education and culture. We learn to do things by rote; we hardly ever learn to learn.

Management vs. Skills Recognition

In most companies, the way to climb up the ladder is through management. It comes with social recognition and compensation. It is a mirror of our social system. This means that your best engineers are encouraged to become managers because that’s the only way for them to climb the corporate ladder. It’s a waste when that means losing an excellent engineer to gain an often subpar manager. Contrary to this model, we should encourage “expert track” careers and welcome them on an equal footing as managers.

Overseeing project delivery milestones, keeping budgets under control, and taking care of logistics are crucial. But maybe neither less nor more than delivering a product, actually mastering the movement.

Proprietary Software vs. Open Source

Finally, we see the influence of the propriety trait. Home, walls, flags, empires… We are biased in relating the price tag to quality and peace of mind. You might have heard the sentence: “I will never be fired if I hire IBM – or Accenture, or Gartner”. We even talk about “proprietary software,” and choosing some is often the default path.

However, IT is the perfect domain for open source. To share. To keep some doors open. To welcome such a mindset, we must be ready to be challenged by the elements. Once more, we can witness the opposition between tribes dynamically exchanging goods and learning to master them, and the fascination for wealth accumulation and empires.

At this stage, our point about the dualism of sedentary vs nomad should be clear.

Build for Run vs. Segregation of Duty

“You build it, you run it,” said Amazon CTO Werner Vogels. This stance addresses the separation of responsibilities between building and operating a solution. This classic setup is partly a consequence of our previous discussion: you have designers, developers, and operators, each living in their own dimension. In our organizations, we even see caste hierarchies, where architects get more glory than developers, and operators are at the bottom. We should not see such a distinction between “building” and then “using” – aka “running.” Here again, we have something to learn from the nomad. 

We can see the problem from the opposite perspective. The most important part is not building the tool or preparing for the trip. The value comes, in fact, in the tool being used when moving. Therefore, the product shall be designed from the start for runners, by runners. When one has to live and die with their tool, they will find plenty of motivation in making it fit for a safe journey. In IT, this concept is named “DevOps” and deeply shakes many companies. Unfortunately, “DevOps” is neither a role nor a job description as we often see; it is rather a mindset / a culture. Once more, our sedentary roots make it difficult for us to adopt such a reasonable transformation.

Is Agility Really Dead?

If you have reached that point, you were intrigued by the nomad/sedentary prism. And at this stage, what can you do? Maybe the first thing is acknowledging how profoundly our cultural traits are piling against a profound agile transformation.

It may also explain why distributing Scrum master certifications, promoting product masters, or buying a truckload of sticky notes does not solve the problem. We cannot truly move forward without profoundly shaking the company’s ways of thinking. We cannot just copy a few practices of the nomads, we have to be nomads, feel the world from their point of view, in order to reap the benefits of their ways.

Explaining how professional reactions to change are rooted in thousands of years of habits might help feel the blockers.

The End of the Stability Fallacy (?)

In his history book [4], Gérard Araud concludes by analyzing how the Occident has lived, for the past seventy years, searching for geopolitical stability. But this stable state is an exception in human history. Instability has long ruled and is the default system state. We should, therefore, embrace it instead of fearing it. Our ancient past has also seen endless migrations and wars.

Today, the growing polarization and the coming dramatic climate crisis should be warnings of the intrinsic dynamic nature of the world.

Despite repeating the martial mantra “we must adapt or die”, well-established companies sometimes seek a stable, comfortable, long-term status quo – with possibly a steady growth to reward shareholders. Doing so looks natural under the prism of the prevailing sedentarist culture and the steady state of progress most of the developed world has lived under over the last few generations. But if entrepreneurs are not afraid, by nature, of market evolution, the inner structure of those companies often struggles to adapt to changes.

Go Nomad! Go Agile!

The good news is that the method to succeed exists. Our goal was not to give a lecture on agility or sociocracy. Many brilliant resources are available[5, 6].

At the micro level, I’m convinced that embracing agility is the way to build a great team that is proud of its production. It is undoubtedly a way to shape a culture where people can blossom and find a sense of belonging every morning. However, we might be aware of the forces piling up against a true “agilification” of the organization. Acknowledging such a barrier does not mean conceding a defeat. Still, we should admit that the difficulties of moving to an agile world is not only a matter of replacing a couple of middle managers; it’s an entire mindset that has to be shifted.

At the macro level, let’s turn toward companies who have embraced some “nomad philosophy to IT product delivery.” They might give us two lessons – or reasons for hope. OCTO Technology’s new vision brilliantly summarizes the first one: “In a complex world with finite resources, we are looking together for better ways to act. We work to design and produce the digital products essential to the progress of our customers and the emergence of virtuous ecosystems.” It addresses the attention to sustainability and careful resource usage. The second lesson addresses a common criticism: “Have you ever seen a nomad tribe of several thousand folks? We need strong structures!” Of course, I agree! But this point was also addressed by companies putting a Dunbar limit on the size of their teams/structures (the human brain cannot relate to a group of more than 150 people). Thoughtworks and Gore Associates, to cite a couple of major ones, broke down their organization into somewhat independent units. There are some losses in not factorizing every function, but the overall benefit is there. And guess what? These companies deliver high-quality products and are great places to work…

(*) “98.7% quotes attributed to Albert Einstein are wrongly so” – Albert Einstein

PS: thanks a lot to Grégory Bataille, for all his comments. And more.


[1]  Implementing Beyond Budgeting – Bjarte Bosgnes, 2016
[2] Let My People Go Surfing  – Yvon Chouinard, 2005
[3] Accelerate – Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble et Gene Kim, 2018.
[4] Nous étions seuls: L’histoire diplomatique de la France. 1919-1939 – 
[5] Devenir un Entreprise Agile – Ludovic Cinquin, 2021
[6] https://patterns.sociocracy30.org/

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