The Pursuit of True Agility

Adrian Cho looks at agile practices, invention, and change through the allegory of musical experiences.

Agility in the Twenty-first Century

If there is one constant in today’s world, it is change. Wars, the global financial crisis, and emerging economies are products of a volatile environment characterized by aberrational events, sudden shifts, and rapid emergence. Agility is necessary to survive and thrive in such chaos.

Times of turmoil give rise to innovation. The invention assisting agility today is the network powered by the Internet and mobile connectivity. It facilitates collaboration with virtual presence and social networks while hosting social media that is changing how organizations and individuals communicate.

Agility in the Twentieth Century

While the network is a powerful tool, true agility demands a unique mindset. For inspiration, we can look to the early twentieth century, which was also a time of immense conflict and change. While the Great War and the Great Depression bookended the era, cultural and social change occurred on many fronts. Immigration, urbanization, racial violence, women’s rights, prohibition of alcohol, and morality were all grounds for conflict. The innovations that eased collaboration were the automobile and commercial air travel, which made it easier for geographically dispersed teams to work alongside one another while radio and movies with sound enabled business and performers to communicate more broadly and more effectively.

Classical versus Jazz

Born amidst the conflict of the twentieth century, jazz thrived in the speakeasies of the Prohibition era and exploited the forbidden fusion of black and white culture. Jazz was a stark contrast to classical music of previous eras:

  • Classical music followed a precomposed script while jazz was almost entirely improvised.
  • Classical music had strict rules of form, harmony, melody, and meter while jazz was free and fluid.
  • In contrast to the conformance of classical music, jazz exploited and rewarded individualism.
  • Classical ensembles relied on centralized command structures while jazz leadership was decentralized and dynamic. Musicians alternately lead and follow between performances and while on the bandstand.
  • Classical music relied more on a script and less on team interaction. Interaction with audiences was frowned upon with etiquette declaring acceptable times for applause. Jazz musicians relied on team interaction to help navigate unexpected musical events while audiences were encouraged to provide feedback whenever they felt inclined.

Many organizations operate with classical structures and processes. They could benefit from working like jazz musicians.

Common Aspects of Performance

Jazz musicians are not the only practitioners of agility. Compare teams in four distinctly different domains—jazz, basketball, software development, and military special operations.

  • Continuous integration—Each team must constantly combine and resolve individual, unique contributions.
  • Synergy—A lone basketball or solo musical performance is not so interesting, but when everyone on a basketball team or in a jazz band plays his or her part at the same time, the combined result can be compelling.
  • Feedback—Team members must be open to responses from collaborators, consumers, and competitors and must adjust their preceding actions accordingly.
  • Quality—There is low tolerance for mistakes or bugs. Even a single mistake at the wrong time can ruin an otherwise perfect performance.
  • On-time delivery—Each team must begin its activity at a previously agreed on and publicised time. No matter what happens, the show must go on.
  • In-time execution—Each team must deliver in real-time without stopping or slowing down to the point where it misses previously agreed on synchronization checkpoints.

Ultimately, each team is expected to perform. While powerful tools, the latest technology, detailed processes, and best practices can help achieve high performance, they are secondary to talented people guided by the right principles. Although each activity requires domain-specific expertise, such as playing an instrument, handling a ball, or writing code, they share common aspects of performance.

Shared terms in how a team is organized include:

  • Scale–At one end there is solo performance and at the other is mass collaboration.
  • Proficiency—How skilled are the members of the team?
  • Composition—Do all the team members have similar skills, experience, and perspectives, or is there diversity?
  • Leadership—Are the responsibilities of initiative limited to a few or even just one dictator, or does everyone have autonomy to lead?
  • Cohesion—How unified is the team?

Shared terms in how a team operates include:

  • Formulation—How much upfront planning does the team do or do team members bypass planning altogether and just jump in and start improvising?
    Rules—Is there a lot of process involved in regular tasks, or is the execution fast and loose?
  • Communication—How much do team members interact with each other and with their audience? Do they keep tabs on any competitors or enemies?
  • Rhythm—Although musicians in an ensemble don’t always play the same rhythms simultaneously, they must synchronize at checkpoints and align within a common tempo and pulse. Every activity has a structure of checkpoints and some kind of heartbeat. Are these things well defined?
  • Health—Every organization and every project has a sense of health. Sickness is neither alluring nor conducive to high performance.

The Path to True Agility

While scaling (adding more people) and proficiency (employing better people) are typically pursued to gain productivity, agility is achieved through diverse team composition, decentralized leadership, a willingness to always put the team before the individual, improvisational skill, just enough rules to afford autonomy while avoiding chaos, transparent actions and openness to feedback, strong rhythms, and a desire to maintain organizational and project health.

Examples of true agility can be found in many domains. They’re worth studying in order to compete in today’s chaotic, confusing, and constantly changing world.

About the Author
With twenty-three years in consulting, research and development, finance, and intellectual property, Adrian Cho helps teams deliver innovative solutions on time. As the development manager for IBM's Collaborative Lifecycle Management project, he manages the global development of multiple products. As a jazz musician, bandleader, and conductor, he has been described by press as "a cool guide to hot jazz" and "a musical missionary." His book, "The Jazz Process: Collaboration, Innovation and Agility," has been endorsed by a diverse collection of thought leaders while reviewers have praised the book as "a deep exploration of collaborative know-how" and "a concept of leadership and teamwork that's well suited for the Google-age workplace." Mr. Cho was a recent keynote speaker at the Agile Development Practices Conference in Orlando, Florida.

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