Interactions over Individuals

Organisational Agility Sep 24, 2021

If you are reading this, I am assuming you are familiar with the first value statement from the manifesto for agile software development:

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

The title of this post is part clickbait, but also part a reflection that I believe that the key signal in amongst the agile noise around certification, fads, commercialisation, commoditisation and true vs fake agile is that of interactions and relationships and not individuals. As with the original statement, there is value in the items on the right, but we value the items on the left more.

Two workshops

Dave Snowden and Tobias Mayer are both names that you will be familiar with if you've been involved with the agile movement for any length of time. Both are passionate about what they do, challenge thinking in agile circles and pull no punches.

Recently I attended a workshop with Tobias on Deconstructing Agile. Dave has also been running workshops on re-wilding agile that I have not been quick enough to sign up for. However, I did manage to catch a talk by him recently and as a result of both of these, some threads of thinking that I've been pondering started to converge.

"Agile is over"

This was quite a statement by Dave Snowden in his talk! Agile has become commoditised and drifted from its origins. In Tobias' workshop, we looked at how we might rebuild from somewhere - much along the lines of the re-wilding that Dave talks about I'm sure.

Dave mentioned his Flexuous Curves framework identifying how we should understand and respond to decaying ideas as they become commoditised and this has been rattling around my brain some time.

The lifecycle of the agile movement is natural - initial revolutionary idea, gradually adopted amongst some successful organisations, written about in HBR, adopted by large organisations, sold by large consultancies and ultimately diluted to a point that it can now be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo, whilst adopting the language of revolution. SAFe being a prime mechanism for this to happen.

In amongst this noise, there is something new that, like agile, will help organisations become better (and will probably ultimately follow the same path as described above). The lesson identified, if not learnt, by the agile movement is that of organisations just being more human, recognising that it's all about people.

I would go further than this and say the important signal in the noise, is that it is all about interaction and relationships.

Shift our focus

Human social systems are complex adaptive systems. We are moulded by the system, both as individuals and as a group, and also have agency within the system - we can change it, or the constraints within it - to enable desirable (or undesirable) emergent behaviour. I recently reflected on it in Husbandry, Complex Adaptive Systems & Bob Dylan.

Behaviour in complex systems is widely recognised as primarily resulting from the nature of interactions between the elements of the system, not by attributes of the individual elements. As organisations, we need to recognise this and focus on those interactions, rather than individual behaviour. As Dave Snowden pointed out in his talk (and many others I'm sure) taking an approach to organisational change by targeting individuals' behaviour is not only an ethical minefield, but is unlikely to result in any real change.

Focusing on interactions and relationships becomes valid for several reasons:

  1. Human Experience - It is more fulfilling as a human. We have evolved to create meaning through relationships and it is these relationships that has enabled us to do great (and not so great) things throughout history.
  2. Observably Evident - We know that organisations, large ones in particular, remain sustainable in their development through informal networks i.e. relationships. Some organisations appear to be unable to function without them.
  3. Theoretically Valid - The behaviour of complex systems is primarily based on the interactions of the elements within them, not the behaviour of the individual elements.

What next?

I don't know! What I do know is that whether this is a weak signal, or something that I have just missed all along, I will endeavour to do the following within the organisations I work with:

  1. Build and nurture relationships and community.
  2. Champion full and fulfilling agency for all.
  3. Create a positive impact on all.

I will also help organisations understand how their culture reflects the nature of relationships through the organisations. I will support leaders in identifying opportunities to enable the kind of relationships within their organisations that provide fulfilling and effective environments for delivering value.

This is easy to write, but requires approaches recognising the complexity. There are ways and means of achieving this, but that's a topic for another post.


John Cumming

I am a Scrum Alliance CTC with BAE based in the UK. I hope to inspire people to develop themselves, their teams and their organisations through curiosity, collaboration and creativity.

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