The Age of Agile

ageofagileThis book is about agile management as a way to conduct  business — not just software development.

In the first chapters, the author presents agile management by characterizing it with three “laws”: the law of the customer, the law of the small teams, and the law of the network. Roughly, I would sum them up as: companies should put creating value to customer at the center of all activities, they should embrace decentralisation and autonomous teams that course-correct, and they should embrace fluid communication throughout the organisation as well as leverage network effects.

The key thesis of the book is that agile management is a fundamental shift from traditional management and is thus akin to a revolution. Whereas traditional management is bureaucratic, top-down, short-term-focused, cost-oriented, and seeks to defend existing innovation to stay competitive, agile management is collaborative, decentralized, long-term-oriented, and seeks to create new innovations to stay competitive.

The laws capture many ideas. The concept of iteration is addressed in the law of small teams and I was wondering if it would have benefited a “law of feedback” on its own. The law of network is also covering two things: fluid communication and network effects with platforms like Amazon Marketplace, the Apple App Store, AWS. I also wondered if this idea should have been better extracted in a “law of platform”. But keeping the message simple with three laws make the conceptual framework easier.

After the chapters about the laws of agile management come a few chapters about implementing agile management in the form of a couple experience reports. These are mostly chapters of the form “doing X worked for us”. Each chapter draw its material from one primary source. It makes the ideas presented earlier a bit more concrete but weren’t that memorable.

Finally come a few chapters where Denning returns to the law of customer, this time in the form of a discussion of the shareholder value model and its shortcomings. The shareholder value model, in the words of Denning, leads to financial engineering and short-term cost oriented management strategies which do no create new customer value, but rather exploit the existing customer value. The chapters read mostly like a rant, which I addmittly enjoyed, just like I enjoy a good rant from Steve Yegge. But in the context of the book, it felt a bit too one-sided or simply too long.

This book was for me like watching a science-fiction movie with a good idea but lots of plot holes. I liked the framework with the three laws, which presents agile principles in a new way and gives new insights.  I also liked that Denning, who doesn’t come from the tech world but form the business world, is ambitious about agile management and sees it at a macro scale through the lense of economy theory and business strategy, not just at the operational level. The conclusion, for that matter, is a good summary of his view. On the other hand, the chapters were lacking a clear connection. There are grandious annoucements about the promise of Agile and these new ideas we should embrace, or return to, but sometimes the content lacks substance. The emphasis on creating customer value felt right though. It’s very much in the spirit of Amazon’s principle of “customer-obession” or Y-Combinators’s motto “make something people want”. I will remember the book for this emphasis.

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