Simplicity as organised complexity

The Agile Manifesto defines a dozen principles. No.10 is:

“Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.”

What does that mean? Well, here are three ways to interpret simplicity, all of which will accelerate delivery, enhance adaptability and generally help you on your way to a truly Agile organisation.

  1. Do what you do now, only less.
As the Agile Manifesto says, simplicity is ‘the art of maximizing the amount of work not done’. And it’s true – plenty of things we do (and still need to do, even under Agile) take more time than they need to.

Take the planning process. A typical waterfall lifecycle has masses of planning, attempts to plan far in advance of where it is realistic to do so, requires multiple levels of approval, is fraught with organisational, cultural and political complications, the plan can be a massive and impenetrable document and it’s often pretty hard to change.

In Agile, by contrast, there is no attempt to plan beyond a realistic horizon, the plan itself can be no more than a whiteboard covered with sticky notes, it concerns no one but those directly involved, and so on – a lot, lot less work to create, manage and maintain. Look at any aspect of Agile, and it aims to be simple in this sense.

  1.  Don’t do it at all.
There’s another sense in which we should maximise the amount of work not done – by not doing it at all. To quote another of Agile’s basic rules, the fastest way to do anything is not at all.

This is what follows from several of Agile’s basic disciplines – collocation, for example. If you’re sitting next to someone, then you don’t need to organise a formal meeting to make a joint decision or convey some basic information. You just turn around and speak to them. So whole classes of standard management activity (and the formalities and bureaucracy that go with them) simply disappear.

Even more radically, think of the things you simply don’t need to do at all when you’re sitting in the same room as everyone else involved. Not only do many activities become informal but, precisely because you’re sitting in the same room, you frequently already know the answer to your question. You can completely give up quite a lot of reporting, planning and formal control, without raising the risk level in any way.

Of course, you need to be careful: Agile is not simply an opportunity to stop doing the dull stuff. Even in waterfall, most controls are there because there’s a risk if they aren’t used. So if you’re planning to skip a control, make sure everyone else agrees that the risk in question really has gone away, or that a much less formal approach is OK.

For example, Agile always tries to keep as much control as possible within the team, but can’t always include everything. So is there someone outside the team who will be missed out? If there is, that doesn’t mean you can’t skip this particular action; but it does mean that you might need to leave a little something in place – a regular call, an informal note, and so on.

  1. Simplicity is organised complexity.
Simplicity is a general principle of organisation. In fact you could even define organisation as optimising the flow of information, decisions, resources and products to the point where it is as simple as possible for a problem of that sort in such conditions. The whole structure of the Agile lifecycle, for example, is there to make sure that the right things get done in the right order at the right time by the right people.

However, it takes on a quite specific meaning with Agile. It is also quite hard to achieve and for some of the less disciplined Agilists, counter-intuitive. Isn’t Agile supposed to be more intuitive, isn’t it supposed to trust the team?

Yes, it is, but trust isn’t the same as blanket permission to let everyone do whatever they want. That’s why not just anyone can do Agile. Agile only works when it is applied by teams of (mainly) highly disciplined, highly professional, highly experienced individuals. For them, intuition includes a spontaneous drive to anticipate obstacles and roadblocks, and to put in place options and solutions before the problem hits.

So when the problem does arrive, they are already prepared to deal with it, be it by solving it, minimising the impact, or side-stepping it altogether. That is what being organised means. Faced with the complexities inherent in any delivery, an organised team will intuitively assemble the right toolkit, set up the right connections, seek remedies for (or ways of avoiding) difficulties, and so on. Doing this with the maximum efficiency (i.e., by creating a structure that ensures the maximum output from the minimum input) and the minimum risk is simplicity.

By |2017-03-19T21:00:57+00:00Sunday, October 2 2016|Categories: Agile, All, Management systems, Organisation, Principles|0 Comments

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Chief Architect, Agile201.com.

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