The concept of “agile” began with software development, but has spread from there into the area of general business management in the tech industry and even beyond. As the name implies, it’s supposed to be about adaptability and flexibility that will improve productivity, but some companies are doing “agile” wrong – and when that happens, it can have the opposite results. In today’s post, I want to look at where the “agile” idea came from, what it should mean, and how it’s being used, both well and not-so-well, in business today.
Agile, in the broader sense of the term, means “able to move quickly and easily.” Heaven knows that’s something that the big corporate machines need more of; as a business grows, it tends to add layers of bureaucracy that can slow all of its processes down to a crawl. That’s what was happening with software development as the software companies became larger and the software itself became more complex.
The creative work of developing software programs got bogged down in a quagmire of peripheral tasks, such as an obsession with comprehensive documentation, a focus on the processes and tools and rigid adherence to following a plan even when later information called for deviation from the original design. Thus the movement to make the development process more adaptable and responsive.
Scrum was a precursor to the modern agile movement, introduced in the mid-1980s. It was seen as a holistic approach to product development and was furthered in the mid-1990s by the efforts of Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland who took scrum methodology public in papers and presentations, culminating in a book called Agile Software Development with Scrum that came out in 2001.
The Agile Manifesto (short for its official name, Manifesto for Agile Software Development), was published that same year as the result of a meeting of 17 top software developers, including Schwaber and Sutherland, some of whom went on to form an organization called the Agile Alliance. Among other important points, the manifesto promoted the idea of programmers working together more closely in pairs (sometimes referred to as pair programming) or teams.
Programming has traditionally been viewed as something of an isolated task – the stereotypical code jockey is a loner who practices his/her trade late at night, fueled by energy drinks and pizza, with only a computer (or two, or three) to provide companionship. Large projects were generally split between multiple programmers, each of whom worked alone on an assigned part of the whole.
This idea of programming as a “team sport,” then, was a pretty radical departure from the old way of doing things. Some studies showed that team and pair programming has several advantages: teams consider more different ways of designing the software than lone programmers do, and they’re more likely to detect problems with the code. A team can also, not surprisingly, finish a programming task more quickly than one developer working alone. Of course, overall cost increases since the company is paying two people instead of one, and the time required, while reduced, usually isn’t cut in half.
The agile movement encompasses a number of principles and guidelines. These include emphasis on working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration, and the ability to respond to change is favored over blindly following a pre-conceived plan.
The first principle, however, is about individuals and interaction. It’s this “interaction” part that I want to focus on here, because it’s the part of the agile philosophy that is most frequently being ported from the software development side to the business side and it’s the part that is being misunderstood and in my opinion, misused in many modern organizations.
It’s from this first principle promoting more interaction and team work that the modern “open office” trend has evolved – or, to avoid confusion with the open source productivity suite of the same name, we can call it the “office without walls.” You know what I’m talking about: more and more companies are going to this layout where everybody works in one room, in some cases gathered around a huge table like one big, happy (or not-so-happy) family.
It’s supposed to increase accountability, to spur more creativity as colleagues bounce ideas off each other, and to further communication among team members. Some see it as a panacea for all the ills of the corporate environment, as the realization of a dream where workers have more equality and bosses are more approachable and everyone becomes more innovative.
Others see this brave new wall-less world as a nightmare of chaos and confusion where they are constantly interrupted and distracted from the creative process and both their productivity and their personal job satisfaction plunges. Those who do their best thinking and best work alone (full disclosure: I am one of them), those who value their privacy and are uncomfortable in crowds, and those who are overly sensitive to external stimuli fail to find the value – beyond that of saving companies money on office space related costs – of open offices.
In fact, a study documented in 2013 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology indicated that a significant percentage of workers are not happy with open-plan offices and that the benefits of enhanced interaction didn’t offset the disadvantages associated with excessive noise and loss of privacy. To many, the work environment has been a rollercoaster over the past couple of decades. First the walls to their nice private offices came tumbling down and they were driven into small cubicles instead. Then even the faux walls of the cubicles were snatched away and they were dumped into one big corral like a herd of cattle. It hasn’t been a happy ride.
Those who have probably suffered most from the push for forced interaction and more “face time” are the many information workers across dozens of fields who had heretofore been happily telecommuting, which saves companies even more money than open offices since on-premises work space can be not just optimized but drastically reduced. Those who work at home not only reduce the company’s costs, they also reduce or eliminate their own personal expenditures related to working from home, such as gasoline, parking, clothing and eating out for lunch.
A number of studies and surveys have shown that telecommuters tend to be happier and more productive than those who go in to an office. Nonetheless, there has been a recent trend among some CEOs in the tech industry to “call in” their mobile workers. In 2013, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer famously put an end to telecommuting and flexible working arrangements at that company. Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman followed suit shortly thereafter, claiming a need for “all hands on deck” during their attempted turnaround period.
Mayer’s decision, based on public statements, was based on a desire for more communication and collaboration, which she felt could only be accomplished by employees working side by side. Meanwhile, many, including billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, called it a step backward and business pundits pointed out the irony of the move in an industry that is increasingly all about mobility, the cloud and being able to work from anywhere. Many employees were upset by the change and some left to find jobs elsewhere.
Proponents of the “back to the office” movement pointed out that working at home allows less dedicated employees to be slackers, to engage in leisure activities for a large portion of the day when they’re supposed to be working since nobody is there to keep tabs, with some even running side businesses during work hours. Others acknowledged that it happens, but questioned the wisdom of punishing everyone for the bad behavior of a few, and sacrificing the increased productivity of so many at-home workers.
To me, the question isn’t whether everyone should work at home or everyone should work at the office, just as it isn’t whether workers at the office should be in one big room or have their own private work spaces. It seems obvious (but apparently isn’t to decision-makers) that this isn’t a “one size fits all” issue. The truth is that some people shouldn’t be trusted to work at home because they don’t have the self-discipline and personal initiative it takes to make it work. Others, though, benefit greatly and bring greater value to the company when they’re allowed to telecommute.
Likewise, some people do benefit from a more “social” working environment. They’re extroverts who thrive on the constant interaction and who draw energy from being with other people. Isolated in an office by themselves, they lack inspiration and are restless and unhappy and less productive. Others are introverts who need the alone time on the job to recharge and need quiet time to think and create. In a big room full of people with no privacy, they’re on edge all the time and can’t effectively come up with ideas and become less productive.
The key here is that what’s needed in developing rules governing how people work is real agility – the flexibility to recognize differences and create environments where each individual worker can work in the place and way that makes him or her happiest and most productive. That would be doing “agile” right.