Over the course of time, various methodologies have come and gone. Panaceas that promised much and purported to solve our problems turned into fads and died, bowing out to the next wave of ‘new thinking’ and labels.

While in vogue, the people that promulgate them extoll their merits in their marketing blurb and attempt to convince the unwitting of the need to buy their labels, attend their training classes, obtain certification, and buy their books. To not do so, they warn, is to be left behind; the fear marketing hyperbole: that your competitors are already doing it – and if you don’t join them – you could become the next Kodak, Blockbuster or Nokia. Fear sells.

The various panaceas are sold to managers with the promise that each will solve their problems. Russell Ackoff, an American organisational theorist said:

I sometimes have tremendous sympathy for management, primarily because they are subjected to more panaceas than they have problems.

A panacea or fad can be characterised using the ‘Innovation adoption lifecycle’1, a sociological model created by researchers Beal and Bohlen. The model indicates that the first group of people to use something new are called ‘Innovators’, who are then followed by ‘Early adopters’. Next, come the ‘Early majority’ and ‘Late majority’, with the last group to eventually adopt called ‘Laggards’. 

 

When a new methodology is created, the ‘Innovators’ begin to use it. Next, the ‘Early adopters’ jump in, promoting the promise that this methodology is better than the last. Popularisation occurs in the ‘Early majority’ through promulgation by ‘thought-leaders’ who write books, articles, blogs, tweets and give presentations at conferences. The big consultancies, who smell money, enter and begin marketing and selling to the ‘Late majority’, and finally, the ‘Laggards’ catch up through fear marketing.

When the purported benefits of a methodology do not materialise, it becomes a fad and begins to die, and typically a war of words ensues between naysayers versus hardcore followers and originators of the fad who defend it. 

Fads seldom completely die out. Those who remain loyal rationalise that ‘people didn’t do it properly’, or ‘snake oil salespeople ruined it’, or in extremis ‘in time we will be proven right!’. The most common rationalisation is to point to what has worked and ignore the rest – even in the face of so many well-publicised failures the protagonist’s response is to say that it’s OK ‘if you do it right’.  Psychologists have learned that if a person is presented with attitudes or actions that are difficult for them to accept, then their defensive mechanisms kick in. It results in the person attempting to rationalise criticisms – they think of reasons to justify or explain – in a seemingly rational or logical manner, to avoid the true explanation.

As one methodology wanes, the next new methodology appears – often the same thing just with a new label – to take its predecessor’s place. We call this the ‘Fad Lifecycle.

 

 

If you are involved in transformation today, then you will no doubt be aware of Agile. The various big consulting firms have done an outstanding job at marketing Agile, with the message reaching right up to the boardroom. Agile methodologies started small in software development, and have over the ensuing years grown into the technology creation and organisational transformation consciousness.

Today, Agile is in no doubt mainstream, with both the ‘Late majority’ and ‘Laggards’ embarking on transformations using ‘Agile ways of working’. Fuelled by big consultancies who promise that Agile is the antidote to outdated command-and-control hierarchies and bureaucracies, they recommend that Agile should be implemented across the entire organisation, thus going way beyond the original intention of a set of principles and values that were created for software development.

Unfortunately, popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to results. Agile methodologies are restrained in what they can do in term of transforming organisations, and evidence suggests are sadly heading towards the place where failed panaceas go to die. Agile methodologies are at serious risk of joining their siblings in the panacea graveyard; methodologies that were once popular, promised much, failed to deliver, waned, and then died. Examples of panaceas that are now six feet under include: ‘Total Quality Management’, ‘Process Re-Engineering’, ‘Balanced Scorecard’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Self-Directed Teams’. Time has proven they were not the saviour they were claimed to be.

Organisations have spent large budgets on Agile transformation programmes that have failed to achieve the espoused benefits.  When these transformation programmes are studied to test their ability to influence and create a shift in thinking (mindsets), all programmes are found wanting. Agile methodologies lack practical method to challenge traditional beliefs so their potential benefits are predictably restrained, and often nullified.

Agile was born from frustration. The blame for the large-scale failure of technology projects had been pinned on the ‘Waterfall’ methodology, while Agile proponents promised these issues would be alleviated. Nineteen years on since the creation of the Agile Manifesto, there are as many failures as there were in the days of ‘Waterfall’. The promised panacea hasn’t become a reality.

Information Age reports that the UK are wasting £37 billion a year on failed Agile IT projects2:

6point6 commissioned a survey of 300 CIOs in the UK and the US to examine their experiences of Agile and measure how successfully the principles of Agile are being applied and executed.

[The research] uncovered that over half of CIOs regard agile development as “discredited” (53%) while three-quarters (75%) are no longer prepared to defend it. Almost three quarters (73%) of CIOs think Agile IT has now become an industry in its own right while half (50%) say they now think of Agile as “an IT fad”.

In light of Agile failures, people claim that newer Agile methodologies – such as ‘DevOps’, ‘Modern Agile’, and ‘Strategic Agility’ – will ‘do it this time’. Here we see the first stage of the fad lifecycle beginning again.

When we work with organisations who are using Agile beyond software development, employees inform us that their organisation may ‘look Agile’ but then call it ‘lipstick on a pig’. They cite, for example, that they may look Agile with post-its on the walls and people are adhering to the various ceremonies, but beyond the Agile veneer little has changed.

In Australia, a royal commission on financial services was undertaken. Stories of misconduct and malpractice became daily news. Customer confidence was rocked, and some senior executives fell on their swords. The roles that had been created around these issues, and how these issues have been built into people’s roles, for example, bonuses and targets driving behaviour, unclear levels of authority and accountability, and ineffective procedures, governance and risk mitigation that surrounded it all, are beyond a typical Agile transformation.

Many of the financial services organisations under the microscope in the royal commission had used Agile methodologies in their operation. It is further evidence of the limited effect Agile methodologies can have on the broader issues required to create productive organisations.

To liberate Agile from its restraints requires different structures, different measures and a different philosophy across the whole organisation; one where thinking is aligned to customers, and where the organisation moves beyond outdated paradigms about work, organisation and leadership. Only then can Agile methodologies help organisations flourish, and avoid becoming yet another fad.


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  1. Innovation adoption lifecycle, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_adoption_life_cycle 

  2. UK wasting £37 billion a year on failed agile IT projects, Nick Ismail, Information Age, 2017