A call-to-arms for The Agile Era of business management

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff at MarTech 2014

Growing Up Fast: Agile Management Practices

There are many posts, articles, and presentations about “agile marketing” out there — I’ve contributed my fair share — that dive into the process of agile management methodologies (mostly adaptations of Scrum). They’re good patterns for implementation — when you’re ready to dig in at that level.

There are also plenty, plenty of high-level remarks out there about how businesses need to be agile — with very little insight about how. Hey, we should all be rich and good-looking too…

But there have been few guides that address the gap between the fluffy and the functional.

Growing Up Fast: How New Agile Practices Can Move Marketing and Innovation Past the Old Business Stalemates by Jascha Kaykas-Wolff and Kevin Fann brilliantly spans that chasm.

It’s a book that explains to executives how to broadly incorporate agile principles into the management and culture of their organizations — in a way that doesn’t require them to throw out their existing hierarchies, yet while loosening them enough to ignite the fires of innovation.

Jascha and Kevin describe four eras of business management:

  • The Efficiency Era (quasi-engineering efficiency in the wake of late 19th-century monopolies and robber-baron largesse)
  • The Social Era (post World War II prosperity and hope)
  • The Shareholder Value Era (1980’s onward)
  • The Agile Era (emerging today)

The Agile Era has its roots back in The Shareholder Value Era, with lean manufacturing techniques such as kanban and just-in-time supply chain management. But software developers at the end of the 20th century were the ones who really flushed out modern agile processes, by breaking big analytical matters into small steps with an emphasis on:

  • Short review cycles
  • Many iterations to improve an change
  • Willingness to try something new with the understanding that nothing is final (or doesn’t have to be)
  • Optimism to go with the best idea at the time
  • Discipline to do the next right thing and not look back at mistakes as wastes of time

Jascha and Kevin connect this into the broader themes of managing innovation across organizations today, by connecting agile to the notion of complementary opposites. Rather than either/or management approaches — e.g., you’re either running a top-down hierarchy or a bottom-up emergent network — they encourage readers to think about having both. The trick is to apply each in different, albeit connected, contexts.

As an example of eschewing either/or choices, they relate the story of Clay Christensen’s milkshake marketing case. A fast-food chain looking to increase sales of their milkshakes debated whether they should be formulated thicker or thinner. The answer came by observing the “jobs” that consumers were “hiring” these milkshakes to do. One job, in the morning, was to make a long commute more tolerable (for which a thicker milkshake, which lasted longer, was better). Another job, in the afternoon, was the nice guy dad, who would agree to buy the kids a milkshake — but would prefer a thinner milkshake that would be finished faster. The optimal answer is to do both: thicker milkshakes in the morning, thinner ones in the afternoon. Sales increased significantly.

Jascha and Kevin return to the theme of complementary opposites several times. Structural minds vs. exploratory minds. Marginal thinking vs. full-value thinking. A slightly odd, yet oddly compelling, metaphor of “mom and dad fighting again” — dad with his bottom-line schemes, mom with her rules and forecasting. (You may be tempted to recommend that the authors seek therapy for that last one, but, in fact, the book is therapy for increasingly dysfunctional legacy management thinking.)

This culminates with their recommendation of a “dual operating system” approach to establishing agile networks within existing hierarchical structures. They suggest that this agile network should be made up of a volunteer army — made up of workers who continue work within the hierarchy too.

On that last point, I’ll share this excerpt from their book:

The agile network has a guiding coalition at the center and initiatives and sub-initiatives that orbit around it, coming together and disbanding as needed. The agile network cannot be viewed as a “rogue operation,” or the hierarchy will inevitably crush it.

Establishing a dual-operating system attunes businesses for better vision, opportunity, response, inquiry, curiosity, inspired action and celebration.

It DOES NOT double the project management, budget reviews, reporting, chains of command, compensation or accountability. It DOES create two systems within one organization that complement, rather than duplicate, each other.

Ideally, workers who thrive in the agile network can bring that newfound energy to the hierarchy, too.

The new agile network may at first feel like one big, soft, squishy, employee-engagement exercise. That’s fine! It evolves. It’s not a sudden or dramatic change. Like team-building exercises, it takes a certain level of comfort and trust developed over time.

Keep going. Keep the steps small. Communicate the victories from the start. Get your feet underneath you while you sell the agile network to the existing hierarchy. If you do all this, the business value will emerge before the hierarchy can dismiss it as silly, different, a waste of time, whatever.

Besides, today’s “waste of time” can quickly uncover tomorrow’s great idea.

Growing Up Fast is fantastic read for grasping the gestalt of agile management, and I highly recommend it.

The photo at the top of this post is from Jascha’s presentation on agile marketing at the inaugural MarTech last month.

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