Nov 302009

The fundamental value of the agile development addressees building a great workplace, in fact, it encompasses the belief that building a great workplace precedes building a great product. Furthermore, this workplace has certain characteristics—its own social architecture: it is self-organized rather than hierarchical, it is egalitarian rather than dictatorial, it is self-disciplined rather than authoritarian, it is collaborative rather than solitary, it is fun rather than drudgery. The leaders and practitioners of the agile movement are passionate about building effective workplaces.

Agile was designed for creators, not stewards. Harvard Business School professor and Cutter Consortium fellow Rob Austin defines the differences between these two types of individuals. Stewards are critical to business success—they manage the numbers and invest prudently. Businesses without stewards often fail in their fiduciary responsibilities to employees, customers, and investors. However, without creators, the stewards have nothing to steward. Without innovation—new product development, new processes and practices, new ways of creating business value—the stewards are left maintaining an empty husk.

Creators need principles and practices geared to innovation. “True innovation is driven by a profound imagination. It incorporates a different way of thinking, a sea change in business processes, even a shift in structure,” write Tom Wujec and Sandra Muscat in Return on Imagination: Realizing the Power of Ideas. Much commonly practiced project management was designed for stewards. And, just as stewardship is necessary, so is a stewardship-based project management style. However, creators need another style, a very different style from the traditional one—especially in the realm of new product development in which reducing product cycles, implementing leading-edge technology, responding rapidly to constant marketplace change, and creating innovative results are critical to a company’s success.

Why is this idea of social architecture so critical to success in product development? First, the cultural momentum towards egalitarian, self-disciplined, self-organizing workplaces has been growing for some time in many industries. Working in hierarchical, authoritarian, command-control organizations doesn’t have much appeal to the modern workforce, neither has this style proved effective in fostering innovation. Second, as the rate of change accelerates, paced by technological innovation, the people who are going to make or break your ability to deliver new products are knowledge workers—you know, those “highly intelligent, usually introverted, extremely valuable, independent-minded, hard-to-find, difficult-to-keep technology workers who are essential to the future of your company (Paul Glen, Leading Geeks).”

In summary, if you want to survive over the long haul in the new product game, creating a workplace—a social architecture—that delivers results and attracts and retains a knowledge-based workforce should be a high priority.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  One Response to “A Social Architecture for Agility”

  1. Great post Jim. It seems that somewhere along the way businesses had forgotten that they were made up of people, and that people are social beings, looking for higher purpose and wanting to be a part of something more. Companies can provide that to their employees to a certain extent. This is why Tony Hsieh of Zappos told me that company culture must be the main focus of the business, and that once you have a strong culture, and people in that culture that share the same principles and ideals of the company, all of the rest falls into place. As Jim Collins says, getting the right people on the bus is very important.

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