There's been a lot of talk about agility lately. Everyone, it seems, wants their company to be a circus acrobat: nimble, capable of improbable feats of derring-do.
Dozens of "big ideas" have put on the mantle of agility in the hopes of convincing the world they're the answer to the sluggishness of big organizations. The problem is that none of these ideas is a panacea; rather, each is a piece of a bigger puzzle, that of transforming an organization into an organism.
Let's look at a few of these agile claimants first.
Cloud Computing is an umbrella term for a variety of big changes in IT. It's the move from physical machines to virtual ones; the move from computers to computing; and the shift from on-premise to third-party pay-as-you go IT. Clouds are IT in an era of abundance, and used properly, they make huge rearchitecting of IT systems possible with just a few mouse clicks, because they remove the friction of change.
DevOps is a portmanteau of development -- the writing of software -- and operations -- the running of it. It's a recognition of the fact that modern developers aren't just coding the application, but also the infrastructure on which it runs, and increasingly the data on which it relies. A DevOps mentality means software that's able to adapt to the environment in which it operates, and that can scale and relocate in response to outages or increased demand.
Agile Development is, as its name implies, a more responsive way of building software. In contrast to the old "build it and they will come" model of waterfall development, which assumed that the specification was correct, Agile emphasizes short cycles of development, testing, validation, and adjustment, along with continuous deployment, in order to deal with shifting requirements.
And Lean Startup is a way of building new companies and new products through iterative learning. It focuses on identifying the riskiest part of a business, and doing just enough work to overcome that risk. Rather than selling what you can make, Lean says you should make what you can sell -- and you find out what you can sell through relentless, close customer development in search of the magical fit of the right product for the right market.
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None of these ideas is brand new. Agile development owes much to notions of incremental development in the 1950s; the first clouds were probably mainframes; and Lean Startup was inspired by concepts from Japanese manufacturing. But it's only in recent years that the widespread use and consumerization of technology that these things have truly gone mainstream.
From organization to organism
Cloud, DevOps, Agile and Lean all want to make us more adaptive. But alone, no one of them can deliver on that promise. Cloud computing can reduce the coefficient of friction of changes dramatically -- but without a DevOps approach to adaptive infrastructure, it can't shine. Similarly, Lean Startup product managers can't achieve the tight iteration and continuous learning they need if the development team isn't using Agile coding.
No, what companies want -- what startups want -- what everyone wants -- is to transform from an organization to an organism. An organism is a hierarchical assembly of systems working together as a single functional unit, often thought of as a self-organizing being. To react in a controlled, agile, measured way, organizations need to behave as organisms. And since IT is the central nervous system of the modern business, change starts here.
This requires a holistic approach that encompasses all of these disciplines. You can't just have some of them and expect to reap the benefits of their entirety. Much of the disappointment, disillusionment, and backlash against these otherwise noble initiatives comes from not seeing the bigger picture.
Part of a bigger whole
Integrative philosopher and author Ken Wilbur has spent his life trying to find commonalities in science, systems of belief, and so on. He talks a lot about "holons", a term coined by Arthur Koestler in 1967 in The Ghost In The Machine. A holon is a thing that has both properties of self, and properties of membership. A cell in your body, for example, is part of a tissue. That tissue is part of an organ. That organ is part of you. You're an organism.
As an organism, you function independently of your organs. You aren't consciously aware of muscles when you lift your arm; you don't think about nerve impulses when you notice something is hot; you don't raise your heartbeat when you need more oxygen. These things just happen. Each "whole" in your body is a thing unto itself, but sublimates itself into a greater whole.