Agile & Digital

Why I love a management fad

I love a management fad. I am unapologetic about this because I have seen a few and learned something useful from nearly all of them. The risk is that we either adopt them too superficially or too completely.

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on agile teams and accelerated iteration in digital working. Some of the companies I have talked to have elevated some of these techniques to a mini religion. We have true believers and are told that this time it is different – autonomous teams, the end of hierarchy and the celebration of failure.

Those of us who have been around a while have seen similar levels of enthusiasm before. TQM, 6 sigma and it’s black belts, good to great, in search of excellence, lean startup, agile teams -(here is a link to a Wikipedia summary of many more that they define as fads) how long will the latest ideas last?

My view is that these development were all fantastic (and not just because I am a consultant) all of these techniques changed my way of thinking, gave me some valuable tools and solved (in part) a problem of their time.

Most of these approaches are also still in use in selected ares, however, of course, none of them work everywhere and a blind adherence to any set of tools never worked.

In implementing these approaches many organizations only scratched the surface. As a test, the next time someone mentions “Design Thinking” to you ask them if they have read the book and to summarize the process. Don’t be surprised when most people have no idea and believe it to be about “thinking about design”. That’s a nice thought but adds little practical value unless we back it up with the tools to make it happen.

I have read the book and worked with some of the techniques – it seems to me to have some good principles and tools particularly around customer centricity and fast prototyping. But I am not a slave to the tool set.

I learnt about the Toyota production system, lean tools and qualify techniques in the 80s. Lean thinking and waste reduction applied to leadership and collaboration still plays a big part in my mindset, though I am less interested in incremental improvement these days and more in the more radical change enabled by technology – for example taking 90% out of my video production costs recently using new technologies.

In short, each of these “fads” taught me something important and gave me tools I could use to solve a particular problem. Today I am getting real value from applying ideas about agility and iterative working to my own organization and in my client work.

Here are my top tips from a survivor and beneficiary of 40 years of “management fads”

  1. Be open to them – there is nearly always something to learn
  2. Go deep – most people focus on the superficial tools and artefacts of the change – currently that can mean just having a daily morning meeting or using Kanban – it’s the underlying principles that matter, not the specific tools. It can also be very good for your career to be seen as up to date and knowledgeable about the latest techniques.
  3. Be sceptical – don’t get caught up in the hype and focus on superficial tools, think through where these principles and techniques can help and use them selectively.
  4. Experiment – try some of the ideas, if they work, try some more. If they don’t – try something else.
  5. Take the best bits and move on. If techniques work well for you, add them to your management toolbox. But remember “if your only tool is a hammer, all your problems look like nails”. Don’t become too wedded to one set of approaches, tools or ways of thinking –  be ready to adopt the next idea and extract the value from that.

Expect the rate of change and turnover of new ideas to continue to accelerate, particularly where technology offers new opportunities. To stay ahead of the curve connect to thought leaders online, read their blogs and books and watch their videos. There is a wealth of free information available now through YouTube and other media. It has never been easier to access ideas but all the value comes from applying them – that bit is down to you.

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