Alberto Parolo

Principal consultant, Radenia AG
July 2020

I am an enthusiast of “Agile”. I like this approach not limited to software development, but as a general state of mind for any project of digital transformation. I would dare saying that an agile approach is good for some of the software developments, and it is great for most of the transformation projects.

Our experience of last months has reinforced our awareness that business survival – and hopefully business development – is dependent on the ability to adapt and evolve rapidly. The Covid-19 emergency has paralyzed some companies, while other companies have been able to react “in agile mode” and rapidly put in place process and product transformations matching a new and unpredictable business environment.

Many aspects of the agile approach are very interesting. Human factors and teamwork, ability to manage evolving requirements, fast delivery of a minimum viable product (MVP), budget flexibility, and many more.

Beyond emergency, we are experiencing facing a radical change in project timelines and planning. Every consultant must have written at least once sentences like “5 years forecasts are gone”, or “every day we are moving at a faster pace” or “organizations need to continuously adapt in real-time”. I am no exception and I agree with these concepts, and I promote transformation projects with an agile approach, to cope with this accelerating environment. Being an active part of change is always one of the most exciting experiences, and I love it.

I have myself presented many times (an article on this subject will soon be published) theory and evidence about the time inconsistency between fast evolution of business requirement and slow implementation of IT solutions. And consequently, I see the need to adopt proper approach and frameworks (agile in primis) in order to satisfy ever faster needs.

We live in evolutionary ecosystems, that require permanent adaptation and learning as well as experimentation and fast transformation – we live in interesting times indeed. Agile times.

Yes! But.

While as a consultant and advisor I am enthusiastically part of this challenge, as a strategic analyst I wonder what are the structural limits (macroeconomics) of this acceleration, and at what maximum speed a company will be able to run (microeconomics) before breaking their engine. It is in fact very clear that acceleration of change can’t be unlimited, there is a limit in speed or frequency of change, and each individual company has its own characteristics and dynamics.

Where is the boundary between speed and rush? Between fast change and hysterics? Even the best athletes have limits in their agility – how agile can you be? What are the limits of your flexibility before your muscles tear up?
Should we simply acknowledge that 5-years plans are gone? I feel this could be dangerous and risky. Major focus on short term action plans can generate, as a consequence, the de-prioritization of strategic thinking and mission. This is already happening at all levels. I live in Italy where we hardly see “grandi opere” (great works) any more, and unfortunately, there are few plans for long term infrastructures, little interest in building masterpieces and in general in building solid foundations for the future. Corporate management in most enterprises (including top management) has mostly short-term targets. Focus on short term constant adaptation could imply, ultimately, a meaningless day-by-day tactical approach. If we don’t plan for the long term, shall we end up throwing in the bin centuries of civilization and progressively moving fast and agile towards new prehistory of hunters and gatherers? Are we aiming at Neanderthal 2.0?

No! But.

Let me now drop the analyst’s hat and wear my consultant’s (or transformation advisor) thinking hat again. There is another major aspect of the agile approach, not to be forgotten: it is the refusal of dogmatism and rigidity. This should include the ability to discuss openly what is the right pace of change for a specific company and context, and help drive its transformation projects according to the appropriate pace. Rushing into change could be a big mistake. Most of the digital transformations fail because companies rush into new technologies before understanding how these technologies can add value. Digital transformations require strategy, and involvement of people with vision, mandate and expertise; and then high speed, not rush.

As fast as possible is never the right speed to go. Nor is focus on technology the right approach – any transformation project is based primarily on people and their ability to change. Acting “as agile as possible” is not a guarantee for success.

My mantra is that we should adopt an “agile” state of mind as our standard approach for all projects of evolution and transformation. This state of mind can be independent of the type of project, technology, and project management methodology adopted in its deployment (agile frameworks are not a dogma).

Being agile does not mean to run or to rush. It implies the flexibility to introduce transformations rapidly but at a speed that is sustainable for the company. Fast enough to disrupt and replace obsolete solutions, but without disrupting the sense of what we are doing and the reasons why we do it. Agile action yes, but never without strategic thinking.