Stacey pushes back against agile propaganda

Ralph Stacey has a provocative post which questions some of the presciptions for “agile organisations”. I’m very drawn to the idea of agile working and it’s therefore really useful to appreciate the sandtraps of simplistic thinking Stacey points to.

For instance the analogy of the flock of birds is often used. A few simple rules support complex group behaviour. Stacey makes this very telling argument:

The analogy of the birds is used and then quite effortlessly coupled with successful organisations. However flocking is one pattern for bird behavior, one that already exists. The few simple rules that produce it will not produce spontaneous jumps to new patterns. Surely, success for corporations over the long term requires just such a move to new patterns. Furthermore, a key feature of the edge of chaos is the power law. This means that small numbers of large extinction events occur periodically while large numbers of small extinctions occur. There is no guarantee of survival at the edge of chaos, only the possibility of new forms emerging that might survive. Nowhere do the authors mention this power law. Instead, they make a simplistic equation between being at the edge of chaos and success. They reduce human behavior to a few key rules and assume that these can ensure success. So, the strategic choice now relates less to outcomes and more to a few simple rules and frequent changes to keep people on edge.

So it’s all very well advocating the edge of chaos – but suggesting it is vital for success seems to ignore the other possibilities that lie there.

Stacey suggests that while invoking notions of complexity, agile advocates ignore how it operates in organsations in ways that make prescriptions of simple rules naive.

And I thought this point was especially telling:

These writers do not seem to notice forms of domination and how this provokes the arts of resistance. They do not mention the difference between the public and private discourses.

Whatever practices any leader advocates, there will always be resistance or a shadow conversation. Trying to implement dramatic change to enforce agility may actually be ignoring the real complexity of organisations. He concludes by asking

So is the notion of the agile organisation just another fad, another label for decentralization and empowerment?

In so many conversations with good friends running creative businesses, after the second pint, I get to a familiar admission. Whatever their own promotional success, they admit that it’s actually next to impossible to make big organisations more innovative because of the massive forces of resistance*. They find these exist just as strongly in apparently glamorous, cutting edge, creative businesses. The real progress they make is probably at a local level, with their immediate clients (who very often end up changing careers, sometimes jumping ship to the creative agency.)

The big bucks may lie in selling big change, but I find myself wondering if the real change is what we can bring about just managing our own small piece of the puzzle with greater sensitivity and awareness?

* Calling it resistance carries it’s own assumptions, I know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.