If you’ve ever been to the beach and taken time out to truly watch the ocean, you have witnessed, in addition to the relentless ebb and flow of the tides, the constant, continuous train of waves crashing on the shore. The shore upon which the waves crash is altered by each wave, but remains fundamentally the same. A careful observer may notice a similar pattern in the steady stream of management theories and techniques expounding on how things could work better crashing onto the shores of our organizations and institutions, threatening the status quo. Like waves, the ideas come and go, but the shore is resilient.
The Agile Wave
A few years ago, a huge wave hit the shores of our organizations and, for a while, this wave seemed like it might have a lasting impact. This wave was the first “Agile” wave. It emerged in the early 1990s with Scrum and was quickly joined by other Agile frameworks such as Extreme Programming (XP). The first Agile wave was born of the deep energies of Lean Manufacturing, iterative and incremental development, empirical thinking, and many other time-tested principles and practices.
On the shore, this wave re-energized many IT departments, and organizations started realizing shorter release cycles and faster throughput of features and applications. For a while, things started to look better. However, as the wave receded, organizational leaders began looking around and discovered that in some cases they had simply become better and faster at delivering things that customers simply didn’t want or need. The wave had left many organizations with huge amounts of low value or worthless product. This result was not what they had expected or what agile had promised. They had little time to ponder this result before the second Agile wave loomed over their heads and came crashing down.
The Product Owner Wave
The second Agile wave started building in the early 2000s and took a while to gather its energies. While this second wave was making its way to the shore, many organizations were struggling with the implications of Agile and most had only scratched at the surface of the possibilities by restricting its adoption to the “IT shop”. Most paid lip service to the idea of business-driven development, choosing instead to retain decision making responsibility within IT. Sure, the teams had a customer proxy or Product Owner, but the reality in many teams was that this individual either wasn’t directly from the business or didn’t understand or play the role effectively.
The first Agile wave brought with it the possibility of organizational change, but many organizations caught up in this first wave were resilient to the change and that wave passed over with little lasting effect.
The second wave brought awareness of the importance of business direction and business decision making (i.e., product ownership in Scrum terms). By 2006, the Scrum Alliance responded to this need by adding a Scrum Product Owner certification to its already popular Certified ScrumMaster offering. Organizations that rode the energy of this second wave to shift business decision making to the business are beginning to realize some of the true potential of Agile.
The Third Wave
Already, on the horizon, keen observers are growing aware of a third Agile wave. While both the first and second waves had potential to make a lasting difference in the way organizations do business, very few organizations were able to tap that energy effectively. Time-to-market and business-driven decisions are good incremental improvements. However, the third Agile wave has the potential to be a real game changer.
The third wave is energized by the need for holistic organizational alignment, intense laser-like focus, and the agility to be a market leader. In addition to being able to respond to change, organizations riding the third wave will be generating change.
The first 2 waves have set the stage and have presented opportunity for learning. As this third wave approaches, it’s time for organizational leaders to be asking, “Will I be surfing this wave, watching it go by, or being pummeled by it as it crashes into the shore?”
The resilience of the organization’s shore serves well when it helps the organization stay true to its vision and purpose. However, that same resilience can work against the organization when it prevents it from benefitting from new opportunities. The waves are the opportunities. One thing is certain, the waves will keep coming. They always have and they always will. The question is not whether another wave will come, but rather, what will you do when it does? Are you ready for the wave? If not, what are you doing to get ready?