When a professional starts to grasp agility

A few days ago I was running a retrospective at a UX agency after one of their successful projects. During the retro, it came out that the success of the project was totally unpredictable at the beginning, and we had to dig deep into details why it was not a failure in the end.

Late in the project it turned out that the workflows are extremely complicated. Much more complicated than anyone would have expected, including the client. At this point the project manager and the UX lead tried to come up with an idea how to avoid similar situations in the future. Soon, they realized that they can’t foresee these cases, they can only catch and handle them once they emerge. At this point, the UX lead asked me how could they change this situation. This allowed me to discuss with them the Cynefin model. I think this is one of the few real theories in project management, besides the many lores.

What to do about complexity?

I had to tell that you can’t change this situation. The Cynefin framework is a really simple tool that says, you can categorize every problem space into one of 5 categories. A situation is either simple, or complicated, or complex, or chaotic, or there is disorder. Moreover, problems can move from one category to adjacent categories either due to special conditions or external factors (like technology development).

This UX studio is often working with clients from the banking and telco sectors. These sectors have been operating in the complicated domain for a very long time. Due to the ever-increasing presence of IT and increasing market dynamics, these markets are currently being pushed into the complex domain. This requires a shift in thinking and problem solving.

As the Cynefin model suggests, complicated situations are best solved with highly educated experts who design a solution upfront. On the other hand, the best approach in the complex domain is different. In complex situations, the problem reveals itself as we move forwards. We need decision power and responsibilities at a lower level in order to move quickly as new information becomes available. The industry’s answer to this problem is “agility“. Agility is a collection of approaches, tools, mindsets that emerge by experimentation and are not collected under a systematic theory.

Personal remarks

My personal opinion is that the systematic approach could be derived from the work on human conception and interaction as described by Balázs Török-Szabó in his books. I try to build on his theories and choose (or fine-tune) the agile methods given the understanding provided by his oevres. This makes my work really interesting. On one side, I have experience with the huge amount of agile approaches and on the other hand I have connections to some really low-level and abstract science.

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