Standard-Eyes-ing Agile Practices

I'll refer you to a remarkable author of a stunning book: Claudio Ciborra-The Labyrinths of Information. Ciborra, a professor (now, unfortunately, dead) at the London School of Economics, spent his career studying how large, successful companies dealt with system development and method acquisition. He found nearly universal "implicit resistance to continuous improvement methodologies, if not open critique of their scientific foundations ... ." He went on to claim tactics like work standardization are "apparations" — "symptoms of a malaise in the current ways of understanding and approaching systems development and use." He explains why by listing the common "pathologies" resulting from the continuous improvement mindset:

Excessive idealism (encouraging disillusion, frustration, and cynicism),

Speed and oblivion (new endlessly supplants the incompletely implemented),

Carbon copy projects (followed "disgruntingly" as bureaucratic procedure),

Narcissism ("strong actors" become the main driving force, creating a double bind: is this systemic rigor or forceful leadership?),

Technical bias (creativity is evicted by the "concern for the careful management of the means"),

Totalitarian bias (drastic simplification of reality), and

Ideological drift (preaching encapsulates science).

He claims that his research (the most unbiased by ideology I've found, except, perhaps, for my own :-}) concludes that "Painful and slow alignment of people, methods, and systems is the stuff of which actual implementation processes are made."

Of course, no one wants to hear this.

The a priori benefits of standardized work processes seem unapproachably obvious, but Ciborra found them mythical. He found no two companies (in 25 years of continuous study) ever implemented the same method, though most claimed to have implemented one or another standard. Further, he found that the odd eccentricities, the local divergences from standards, often comprised an organization's competitive advantage. He argued that when standard procedures are embraced, they create at best competitive parity. Real advantage was achieved by working in unreproducible, non-standard ways.

Besides, the terms standard and agile (especially if I deign to capitalize the term as Agile) sit together koan-like. A subject, perhaps, for reflection more than action.


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