Complexity is the Enemy! How Agile Practices Allow Us to Operate in a VUCA World

One of the key advantages of Agile over plan-driven approaches is that an Agile mindset acknowledges our ever-diminishing ability to usefully predict the future and focuses our efforts on managing change instead of trying to suppress it. This “new reality” has become pervasive enough to drive its own buzz word – VUCA, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. But beyond the hype lies a truth that Agile leaders need to understand and embrace – that certain problems really do respond differently to our attempts to manage and solve them. Why does this matter? Because problem contexts that defy straightforward cause-and-effect expectations significantly impact productivity while simultaneously presenting much higher risks to success. Even worse, applying leadership approaches that aren’t matched to the problem context dramatically increases the danger of catastrophic failure.

In this session, we’ll examine how the Cynefin framework helps us make sense of what kinds of problems we’re dealing with and how we should approach them. We will then look at ten ways in which Agile frameworks, approaches and technical practices help us manage or even reduce complexity and one where they fall short. You will walk away with a deeper understanding of how - and why - the things we do as agilists increase stability and reduce risks for our teams.

 
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Outline/Structure of the Talk

The complexity of the systems and applications we develop keeps increasing and will take another leap with ever-growing data volumes and the widespread adoption of machine learning and AI. At the same time, many organizations and practitioners, even if they nominally follow Agile “rules,” remain rooted in management thinking and practices that only work well in ordered, predictable environments that no longer reflect the reality of most of our work. We are at a point where there is a danger that Agile is perceived as having failed to deliver on its promise - sometimes because the promises are excessive, but often also because implementations are incomplete and driven by the wrong objectives. I believe that without an increased understanding of how complex environments behave and why they require Agile approaches and practices, as well as a closer examination of how those practices, properly applied, really work to increase our chances of success, our community can’t get to the next level of successful Agile adoptions and thus make its fullest contribution to solving problems in a rapidly changing world.

This session was previously presented at TriAgile 2019.

Outline:

- What does VUCA mean?

- Introduction to Cynefin

- Leadership implications of unpredictability

- 9 (or maybe 8) aspects of Agile that help us manage complexity (and how)

- The missing value loop

- Combining Agile practices to isolate and manage complexity

- Key points

Learning Outcome

- Get introduced to VUCA, the Cynefin framework and the importance of complexity for modern organizations

- Understand the characteristics of different problem contexts and the implications on leadership approaches

- Examine how specific Agile approaches, frameworks and technical practices help teams manage or reduce complexity and unpredictability

Target Audience

Agilists, managers and other leaders interested in a deeper examination of how, when and most importantly why specific aspects of Agile enable successful engagement with today's complex problems.

Prerequisites for Attendees

Understanding and some experience with common Agile frameworks, approaches and technical practices.

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