Agile, cookie cutters and complexity: a recipe for disaster?

Explore Assurity 25 September 2012 Gillian Clark

As part of our commitment to continually challenge the status quo, Assurity’s Innovation Delivery team constantly seek new and insightful thinking while exploring how our clients could benefit. With this in mind, we hosted Cognitive Edge’s Dave Snowden and Michael Cheveldave at the end of August.

Gareth Evans introduced Dave’s work during his presentation on Patterns of Flow and where they fit into the Cynefin Framework at the Lean Systems Software Conference in Boston in May. Gareth’s thinking was that if we knew that introducing a certain Agile pattern – like reducing batch size, limiting WIP etc – fell into the complex domain, we would need to reconsider our approach. As coaches, we know it is important to understand that a direct approach applied with expertise is not the only way to introduce a pattern into an organisation. In complex domains where the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, Dave argues that we need to probe-sense-respond with experiments that are amplified when successful and dampened when they fail.

Mary O’Keeffe and I subsequently went to the SenseMaker® foundation course in Melbourne in June and realised how the Cynefin framework was scratching the surface of the work already developed by Cognitive Edge. Cognitive Edge has perfected an array of practices based on cognitive and complexity science, including the use of micro narratives as a way of helping organisations see the world through the eyes of their customers and staff. We were so taken with this course that we persuaded Dave and Michael to visit us in NZ and run the Foundation and Advanced SenseMaker practitioner courses. It was a great event which a number of our clients attended. We’ve since spoken to a few of them about how these techniques can help organisations hear what really matters to their people.

But why is this of interest to Assurity? It’s simple. We often encounter organisations that are adopting Agile and Lean ways of working by implementing a series of recipe-based training programmes. While this approach can deliver some of the benefits of Agile and Lean, it will not truly be successful or scale without a clear understanding of the underlying principles. It is key that we understand the underlying patterns of Agile practices and, more importantly, the complex domain that we are often working in when implementing these practices. Blindly applying a cookie cutter approach will simply not work and, as a community of practitioners, we need to understand that networks of people are complex adaptive systems in their own right. To be successful, Agile practices should match the domain in which they are introduced since not all practices suit every domain. Joseph Pelrine has written a great article on this called On Understanding Software Agility – A Social Complexity Point Of View.

Micro narrative capture (SenseMaking) could even be used during your Agile adoption to allow coaches and decision makers to truly understand the impact of change, and ensure that a context-specific response is considered versus a simple cookie cutter rollout.

So after Michael’s great blog post “A wonderful first visit to New Zealand!” and bearing in mind the great interest these two workshops have stirred up among our clients, all I can say is “Please come back soon Dave and Michael!”.