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Agile PPM: Just An Illusion or the New Black

Can something be just ”too Agile”?

Is agility still a matter of balance, or should we jump all the way in and leave everything else we know behind? And how does this relate to everyday Project Portfolio Management (PPM) processes?

When we do not know exactly what we should be doing, to avoid the anxiety of doing nothing we often end up doing just anything, even if it does not help at all. In psychology this phenomenon is called ”action bias”. In business life it’s called ”dynamic behavior”.

The dictionary defines ”bias for action” as: ”The propensity to act or decide without customary analysis or sufficient information; ‘just do it’ and contemplate later”.

When I learned about Agile software development for the first time in the mid-90s I was excited and energised. After the first few paragraphs I thought that we had been Agile for ages without even realising it. We had always just started coding, without necessarily thinking about exactly what it was that we were supposed to code. Then I read further, learned more, and understood that we had not been Agile at all, we had been foolish. I learned that ”Agile” did require some planning and consideration after all, it was just that we should be planning things differently. So for me personally, it was back to the drawing board.

The key question of proper is ”How can we distinguish between good decisions and bad ones”? This is obviously not a new question, but in the age of Agile, it’s importance has increased dramatically. Our operating environment seems to require more and more speed and whilst we can perhaps alter our mindset for this, faster decision-making also introduces significant dangers.

In the ”good old days” all we needed to ask ourselves was this: Should
we do this?

With the front end now being considerably more complex, the original
question must now be phased into three steps:

1. Should we experiment with this?
2. After the experiments, does this still look attractive and feasible?
3. Should we do this?

Moderation is one of the virtues parents always try to instill in their children. We were told that excessive use of anything was to be strictly avoided. Organisations, however, do not have parents moderating their behaviour. Unleashed, organised groups of people typically try too much, try to fix everything and try to do it immediately. In the Agile age, the dangers of this operating style are growing exponentially. This is especially the case if the word ”Agile” is misinterpreted and reduced to mere speed and flexibility. It certainly is about speed and flexibility, but it must be about many other things at the same time.

We are witnessing the most rapid transformation of the business environment ever. Changing factors continue adding complexity to our world. Still, every leader has been assigned fixed goals, and these goals often have fixed metrics attached to them. Doing nothing is obviously not an option, so we must do something. Not knowing exactly what we should be doing in order to avoid the anxiety of doing nothing, we often end up doing just anything, even if it would not help achieve any goals. In psychology this phenomenon is called ”action bias”, and in business life it’s called ”dynamic behaviour”.

Modern business environments also seem to demand that decision making is ”efficient”, which is often misinterpreted to mean ”quick and dirty”. There is no time to get to a profound and clear decision. More and more large companies proclaim themselves ”Agile” and my guess is that each board member would give a different answer from the true meaning of the word in their public statement.

Even if some of the aggressive transformations have succeeded, I believe most of them have not. We just rarely get to hear of enterprises that have failed because of their too ”dynamic” behaviours. To a random observer, their ”dynamicity” and ”agility” might have seemed closer to aimless charging back and forth.

So, there seems to be quite a few risks involved. What are the risks, and how are we to avoid those?

When a human being sees something that needs fixing, we naturally want to get it fixed. This is basically a good thing, but without moderation we can drift towards obsessive behaviour, both as individuals and groups. Organisations can stray to ”binge-eating”, or meaning of fulfilling their real needs by conducting some useless, surrogate activites.

Doing something just for doing something’s sake is not to be confused with controlled experimenting. Actually, we should be promoting increased experimentation, feasibility studies, research, quick prototyping or Lean Service Creation just to name a few examples. This should be a strategic decision, and there should be a target for
the minimum amount of feasibilibity work conducted at the front end of the implementation pipeline.

Naturally there should also be an upper limit for the amount of pre-project work undertaken. In case we do not define and enforce this range, we are intentionally generating a risk factor. If we do not experiment with new things, we will soon lag behind our competitors. If we experiment too much, we risk the actual delivery of new
products or ser-vices to the marketplace. In the end, it is a matter of balance between two ends. This risk factors become even stronger if our strategy and vision statement is too broad, so that they do not focus our direction. A strategy that wants everything gets nothing.

What should we do if all or some of these stories sound too familiar?

When planning a new governance model, at least some of the following themes should be considered:

1. Despite of any warnings or instructions, a human being (or even a CEO) will still want it all. Systems or models can never fully prevent us from blocking the smooth flow by initiating too many efforts simultaneously. A system should prompt us towards self-control and responsible behavior through indicating what is possible right now and what is not.

2. Even the most transparent information system does not substitute for profound dialogue between people. A shared understanding of the matters often requires a vast amount of discussion. A governance model should not alienate us from human interaction, but call for an authentic dialogue.

3. Transparency requires openness, and each one of us should keep our true goals visible for others to see. It’s the ideas that should be competing with each other, not the individuals involved. Transparency is also a key word when designing the technical solutions around PPM strategy.

4. While we should seize new opportunities, we should still choose our battles wisely. Guidelines and processes do not eliminate the need for intuition and experience, they should on the contrary provide a framework for our ideas to flourish.

5. Everyone loves their own ideas and abandoning them is painful. However, with more and more ideas on the table, non-feasible ones must be discarded quicker than ever before. We must ”fail fast”.

6. An Agile governance model must have an inescapable, built-in flow. Output must be predictable, and opportunities must progress steadily. Less mature ideas must give way to more viable ones, and less profitable opportunities must wait for the more attractive ones to be implemented first. The implementation pipeline should be kept separate, and once an idea gets to the actual implementation phase, it should not be interrupted any more.

7. If the ”dynamicity delusion” prevails, decision-making can become random or arbitrary, resulting in increasing amounts of unfinished or wasted work. In systemic thinking, the outer control loop – the decisionmaking – must have the slowest cycle, otherwise the system will start oscillating.

8. Driving in fog with a 10-metre visibility can be nerve-wrecking and panicked reactions cannot always be avoided. Personal tolerance for uncertainty is vital, but this is not a natural talent for most of us and needs to be learned.

All this sets demands to our strategy and vision. Both of them have to be carefully crafted and also carefully communicated. A vision statement, for instance, must be at the same time inspiring and practical and this is not easy to achieve. If our vision is not practical enough, it does not support us in our Agile choices.
On one hand Agile leadership is just common sense. On the other hand, however, some parts of it are counter-intuitive. Consequently, whatever framework we build for governing our operations, it must support both transparency of decision-making and full visibility to the available resources.

The most surefire way to fail is to remain in the action bias mindset and deliver fast decisions just for decisions’ sake. Another way of avoiding success is to decide everything alone, without discussing the content of ideas thoroughly with the other stakeholders.

Teppo Nurminen
CEO of Project Institute Finland

Teppo is a leading thinker on all elements of Project Management, Change Management and developing best practices within PPM and has over 25 years of experience.