Saturday, 1 September 2012

Is there such a thing as Agile Governance?

I have just read this article: "Agile Enterprise Needs Agile Governance"

I have two problems with the article.

The first is that it is "bandwagon jumping" - Agile is rather an "in" thing at the moment (e.g. in the UK and the US, the govt has recently published consultation papers on the use of more Agile project management for major government projects), so this trend of then applying it here there and everywhere is both rather simple-minded and misguided.

Secondly, Agile is a term for a whole collection of approaches and methods which share a common philosophy, but in the context of the above article, is being used in a looser way and thus both obscures what Agile actually is and confuses the approach.

There are some aspects of Agile philosophy that can be applied to governance, but that doesn't mean there is such a thing as "Agile governance".

What is Agile?

Agile's origins lie in computer programming. The traditional waterfall approach assumes that you can capture and document all of a user's requirements if you only take enough time and make enough effort to do so. In some cases this is certainly true, but there are many instances where users don't actually know exactly what they want, and their needs actually change over time anyway. The Agile philosophy emerged from this realisation and attempted to deal with the uncertainty factor within identifying user requirements.

From this a number of Agile methods for managing programming endeavours have arisen, such as SCRUM and DSDM. These have gained quite wide acceptance and are based on sound, tested principles such as SCRUM sprints and DSDM timeboxes. In fact, like any methodology - even one that is deliberately framed to support iterative development and loose requirements - an underlying, agreed set of principles and tools is needed. And applied intelligently, these approaches can work really well.

Agile in non-software development contexts

The success in the software development arena has led to Agile being applied in a more general project management environment. Just as Agile development is an alternative to Waterfall, so we now have DSDM Atern which has been developed as a generic project management approach using Agile principles and philosophy that can be used as an alternative to PRINCE2. (And in fact you can also use the two together, just as you can use aspects of Waterfall and Agile development together).

And like Agile development, Agile project management also has a strong, well developed, tested set of principles and tools.

So what about Agile governance?

It's not that I have any objection to Agile principles being applied in more general governance contexts - in fact that may be a very good thing. But as far as I'm aware there is no agreed, tested Agile governance framework. So my problem is that Agile will be both trivialised by using it in this loose, ill-defined way, and that - more seriously - half-hearted attempts will be made at doing so-called Agile governance to ill-effect.

And ironically there is already an excellent, proven, well developed alternative to traditional command-and-control governance: Lean management. In many organisations Lean (and its associated Systems Thinking) has been applied by simply using the tools without adopting the core philosophy. This is a mistake and improvements in these situation have proved to be only superficial. If this could be changed, we'd have no need for "agile governance" because Lean Management - properly applied - leads to better quality, better staff morale, better customer satisfaction, and greater success. There are lots of good case studies to show this is so: here is just one such.

So, please, let's not get diverted by the latest buzz-word. We don't need Agile governance, we need good governance: and Lean provides the answer.

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