Computing Reviews

Doing agile right: transformation without chaos
Rigby D., Elk S., Berez S., Harvard Business Review Press, Brighton, MA, 2020. 256 pp. Type: Book
Date Reviewed: 09/10/21

By now most computing professionals know that, according to the 2001 Agile Manifesto, agile practitioners aim to improve software development by valuing “individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” “working software over comprehensive documentation,” “customer collaboration over contract negotiation,” and “responding to change over following a plan.”

What fewer are likely to appreciate is the rich and long history behind agile practices, including such roots as the continuous improvement cycles applied at Bell Labs in the 1930s; W. Edward Deming’s plan-do-check-act cycle (1936); Nonaka and Takeuchi’s publication of what they termed the “rugby” approach, followed by manufacturing companies such as Fuji Xerox, Honda, and Canon (1986); and Sutherland and Schwaber’s development of the Scrum software development method (1995).

The rich history behind agile practices suggests that these practices can apply to other domains besides software and scale to whole organizations. The three authors of Doing agile right, drawing on extensive consulting experience, aim to explain how agile practices can indeed be applied at the enterprise level.

As in software, agile business practices are based on self-organized, customer-focused learning teams. However, in an enterprise context, the application of these practices requires considerable tailoring. First, one must judge where agile approaches can be fruitfully employed; one case advocated in the book is to turbocharge innovation. Then one must decide where to retain bureaucratic structures--think of compliance. Finally, one must set up a structure for the large number of agile teams to organize themselves--often as agile teams of teams. For prescriptive guidance on this task, the authors advocate the adoption of agile frameworks for scaling, one of which is developed by Bain, the company they work for.

Agile transformation should begin at the grassroots level, but depends on committed leadership. Its leaders must practice what they preach, limit their planning horizons, provide flexible funding, and spread agile cross-functional innovation teams throughout the enterprise.

The text’s arguments are well supported through numerous references to academic studies, which lend them weight and credibility. Even more interesting are the extensive descriptions of how companies, ranging from Amazon to Dell to the Royal Bank of Scotland, practice agile at scale throughout their enterprises. While technology appears to be the key focus of these approaches, innovation and process improvement also seem to be worthwhile beneficiaries.

Sadly, the book is not perfect. A chaotic structure, platitudes, repetitiveness, tautologies, tired cliches, and often-sloppy writing may distract impatient or discerning readers. Still, even they will find compensation in its many gems.

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Reviewer:  D. Spinellis Review #: CR147352

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