The Achilles’ Heel of Agile

Guest post by Jurgen Appelo

When I wrote this, I was working in a big open office space in the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam (see photo). About 100 people work in an office that was the first of its kind in Europe, when it was built in 1929. And more than 80 years later, architecture lovers from all over the world still come to admire it, take pictures, and make drawings. I sometimes waved at them.

photo of open office style at Van Nelle Office
Van Nelle office, reprinted by permission of Stephan Meijer

A big open office space has advantages and disadvantages. Advantages are flexibility and easy communication. The main disadvantage is that it is a shared resource for all who work there. Climate, sound, and light are hard to manage in a space like that, and the optimal configuration for the whole is never optimal for all. But our office manager did the best she could in trying to maximize pleasant working conditions, while maintaining tight rules to keep things under control. A shared open office is not the ideal environment to give people full responsibility over their own working space.

Self-organization is usually promoted in agile software development. But when shared resources are not managed by a central authority, self-organization often results in the Tragedy of the Commons. The name refers to a situation in which multiple self-organizing systems, all acting in their own self-interest, overexploit a shared limited resource, even when they all know it is not in anyone’s interest for this to happen. The impact that humanity has on CO2 levels in the air, trees in the forests, and fish in the sea, is right now the most debated and intensively researched case of the Tragedy of the Commons. Organizations also have shared resources, like budgets, office space, and system administrators. We could see them as the business-equivalent of the air we breathe, the landscape we change, and the fish we eat.

Research indicates that four ingredients (called the four I’s) are needed for sustainability of shared resources [Van Vugt 2009:42]:

  • Institutions [managers] who work on building trusting relationships between competing systems [teams] in order to increase acceptance of common rules;
  • Information that increases understanding of the physical and social environment, in order to reduce uncertainty (because uncertainty results in bias towards self-interest);
  • Identity, or a need for a social “belonging” that encompasses all participants, to improve and broaden one’s sense of community and reduce competition between teams;
  • Incentives that address the need to improve oneself, while punishing overuse and rewarding responsible use.

Research shows that it is imperative that there is some form of management (or governance) to protect these shared resources by working on these four I’s. (I realize that most modern day governments are not setting a good example of how to do that.) In the case of shared resources, whether it concerns money, space, or system administrators, someone outside of the development teams must keep an eye on long-term sustainability instead of short-term gains by individual teams.

The Tragedy of the Commons is the Achilles’ heel of Agile. It takes management to protect that heel, in order to prevent teams from depleting resources, and crippling the organization.

This article is an adaptation from Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders, by Jurgen Appelo. The book will be published by Addison-Wesley, in Mike Cohn’s Signature Series.

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4 thoughts on “The Achilles’ Heel of Agile

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