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Q&A with Luca Minudel

Updated: May 31

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Luca Minudel, CEO - Lean-Agile Coach & Trainer @SmHarter.



Agile Connection: "In what ways does Complexity relate to Agile?"


To really answer this question, we need to look back at the 90s, the time of the Personal computing and Internet revolution. At that time software development became a significant economic activity and shifted from being an individual sport to a team sport. In that historical moment, innovation was accelerating in a way that no previous generation had ever experienced. The change it brought was revolutionary, relentless, always surprising, and exponential.


In accordance with Moore's law, the power of personal computers and servers, including those powering the Internet, grew exponentially. The increased power of computers enabled the widespread adoption of Object-Oriented programming languages, which provided software developers with abstraction tools an order of magnitude more powerful, new capabilities to express intent and meaning, and levels of software modularisation that allowed the composition of various functionalities and capabilities previously unimaginable. The increased power of internet servers fuelled the exponential growth of networks, their speed, and the number of connections.


The Internet provided the infrastructure for distributed computing and the provisionand consumption of distributed, autonomous, and independent services. In doing so, the Internet gave rise to a complex, open technological ecosystem that is constantly expanding and evolving exponentially. The nascent Open-source movement of that time connected the minds, talents, and energies of software developers from all over the world, providing the building blocks that contributed to further accelerating technological innovation. Therefore those of us working in software development at the time were dealing with an unprecedented continuous stream of complex problems, a complexity that has therefore become:

  • Pervasive: it is encountered everywhere in the challenges faced at work.

  • Persistent: it can be faced and managed, but not fully eliminated.

  • Exponential: its problems grow in number and frequency faster and faster, alongside the continuous acceleration of innovation and change.



What happened then is very similar to what is happening now with this new wave of technological innovation driven by Artificial Intelligence.


At the time the dominant approach to work was mechanistic, largely inspired by Fordism and Taylorism. That approach brought us the combustion engine, modern medicine, semiconductors, and much more. Even so, such an approach when applied to software development projects produced a long trail of failures.


The consequence at that time was that we could accurately predict the position of a planet in the sky 400 years later (thanks to Newtonian physics and the Cartesian universe), but we were not able to predict when or even if a certain software development project would be completed. We were constantly struggling to make and keep promises to our clients, in the presence of uncertainty, unknowns, and unforeseeable change due to unprecedented levels of interdependencies.


It was thanks to pioneers and a small number of new lightweight methodologies that we turned the tide on the failures of software development projects of the 90s. Those lightweight methodologies then came together under the umbrella of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. These streaks of tangible and repeated successes made Agile Software Development the only modern approach to work whose effectiveness has been proven on the ground with documented historical evidence.


So going back to the initial question, in what ways does Complexity relate to Agile? Agile successfully tackled the complex problems Software Development was facing, and later Complexity Science provided the basis to explain when and why Agile works, defined the nature of Complex software development problems that benefit from Agile, explained what makes them different from the other problems Fordism and Taylorism could previously face successfully, and explained that a fundamentally different approach is needed to tackle complex problems, to manage complexity, to defuse it, to absorb it, to release it, to navigate it, and to dance with it.



AgileConnection: “Why is Complexity-Thinking critical today for organisations adopting Agile and trying to embrace the Agile mindset?"


The ripples created by the pioneers turning the tide on the long tail of failures of software development projects of the 90s pushed their lightweight methodologies and Agile Software Development toward the mainstream. Over the first decade of the new millennium, due to globalisation and the digital revolution, the complex problems faced by software development gradually pervaded companies in all sectors, becoming a widespread reality. All these companies began to look at Agile for lessons to learn. Therefore, around 2010, Agile very quickly became mainstream going from “Why should we adopt Agile? Who else is doing it? How can you tell if it will work for us?” to “Can we afford to ignore Agile?”


The successes achieved by Agile Software Development in navigating complex problems and thriving in everyday complexity were built on a fundamental paradigm shift.


The previous approaches to work inspired by Fordism and Taylorism were looking at each project as a clock to be disassembled, each part to be studied, analysed and understood in isolation, for then bringing back together all the parts with a complete understanding of how theclock would works and with the ability to predict how it will behave in the future.


The new approach to work brought by Agile Software Development instead looked at each digital product and software development project/initiative as a cloud that cannot be dissected and analysed piecemeal, that is continuously changing and can only be partially understood as a whole and within its environment, because a cloud is much more than the sum of its parts, and can only be partially grasped by constantly interacting and working with it.


The old approach to the clock type of projects was based on a paradigm of work that imposed, prescriptive, predictive, process-centric, overcomplicated, standardised, sequential and phase-gated, rigid.


Whereas, the new Agile approach to the cloud type of projects/initiatives is based on a fundamentally different paradigm of work that is invited, empirical, emergent and adaptable, people-centric, collaborative, iterative/incremental, and simple. Many Agile and complexity practitioners quote a poem by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado of which I provide two passages:


Traveller, there is no path,

you make the path as you walk.

...

Traveller, there is no path,

only a ship's wake on the sea.


Or as Woody Zuill puts it:


It is in the doing of the work that we discover the work that we must do. Doing exposes reality.


This new paradigm that makes Agile work, revolutionises the previous belief system, the power structure, and the ways of looking at and thinking about how an organisation works.


For many reasons including some described here, when Agile became mainstream, that fundamental paradigm shift that made Agile work was in many cases lost, and only some mechanics and elements of the choreography were adopted and adapted preserving the old paradigm. The failures of scaled or monumental allegedly "Agile" frameworks and the canned solutions and standard recipes from large consultancy companies are reflections of that.


Therefore the way mainstream Agile, its values and principles, its practices and its practice are today understood and experienced by many is a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of what Agile really is.



So going back to the initial question, why is Complexity-Thinking critical today for organisations adopting Agile and trying to embrace the Agile mindset?" Complexity thinking represents a second opportunity to cut through the common misunderstandings and misrepresentations of today’s mainstream Agile, and therefore grasp the fundamental paradigm shift brought by Agile, a paradigm that enables us to successfully navigate complex problems and thrive in everyday complexity. Given the pervasive and persistent nature of complexity in all fields and areas of life, the exponential rate of innovation and the unstoppable acceleration of change in the current age of imagination and creativity, understanding the Agile mindset and its paradigm shift, with help from complexity thinking, is a necessary springboard into the modernity of Artificial Intelligence.



Leadership and Management: "How should leaders and managers in Agile environments adjust their approach to decision-making and team management in light of Complexity-Thinking principles?"


Many companies still rely on ordered and linear operating methods, which are a hindrance when tackling complex and unordered problems common in this era of innovation and exponential change.


Those companies that want to keep up with the times by adopting effective ways of tackling complex problems and thriving in everyday complexity will inevitably find themselves having to make changes, sometimes even drastic ones, to their leadership and management style, structure, governance, policies, in other words, their way of operating.


<< … most of us are working with an outdated playbook: plays that we have been programmed to run from an older paradigm of leadership, the Industrial Revolution >> - David Marquet


It is also true that many companies trapped by the dependency on control and forecasts have

found themselves running in circles without getting anywhere. Sometimes switching from one

silver-bullet to another, but without changing one iota.


There are instead many principles that can guide formal and informal leaders to embrace Complexity-Thinking. Some ingredients of those principles are briefly mentioned in the list below.

  • Awareness, recognition, and understanding of Complexity

  • Being at ease with uncertainty, unknowns, ambiguity, lack of control, constant change

  • Patience to wait for the right moment to make a decision

  • Curiosity

  • Obliquity

  • Collaboration & community

  • Responsiveness

  • Resilience

  • Presence and authenticity

  • Humanity

  • Widespread collaboration

  • Teamwork at all levels

  • Transparency (horizontally and vertically)

  • Autonomy

  • Organisational excellence

  • Technical excellence


Joseph Pelrine, Agile pioneer and Agile Psychologist highlights the importance of generative behaviours over non-generative behaviours for leaders and managers when tackling complex problems and when embracing an Agile mindset. Generative behaviours include being

  • Appreciative

  • Encouraging

  • Curious

  • Experimental

  • Flexible

  • Resourceful


Where non-generative behaviours include being

  • Directive

  • Controlling

  • Conforming

  • Hierarchical

  • Cautious

  • Resistant


In general terms, managers and leaders tackling complexity, need also the ability to resist the anxiety of control, tolerate uncertainty, and ambiguity, and not give in to the temptation of conveniently simple and convincing narratives.


I recently wrote a micro-guide to help formal and informal leaders and managers thriving in everyday complexity by breaking free from linear approaches, the title is Succeed over difficult problems by embracing Complexity-Thinking, and it explores Complexity-Thinking more in detail, with more examples and practical suggestions.


The book also contains forewords from scholars and professionals who succeeded thanks to Complexity-Thinking and it includes several short interviews with distinguished practitioners sharing their journey into complexity thinking together with their key learning and suggestions.


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