Thursday, January 12, 2012

Understanding Agility the Hard Way!

Agility is one of those words beloved by software industry marketing people. Over time it has become almost embarrassing and meaningless. Yet if you are in doubt I suggest asking Eastman Kodak, RIM, Palm, Yahoo or Nortel what they think the term means. When you don't have agility you understand it all too well.

In today's FT John Gapper says: "Kodak’s experience has a lesson for companies in the grip of rapid technological change. As Kenny Rogers sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em”. Unfortunately, most public companies are run by people who hate folding ’em, and instead keep returning to the shareholders and bondholders for more chips. . . . Few senior executives, when debating options for a technology company in decline, admit defeat and run it modestly. Instead, they cast around for businesses to buy, or try to hurdle the chasm with what they have got. Sometimes they succeed but often they don’t, wasting a lot of money along the way."

It brings to mind Fred Brooks essay on software engineering. "No scene from prehistory is quite so vivid as that of the mortal struggles of great beasts in the tar pits. In the mind's eye one sees dinosaurs, mammoths, and sabretoothed tigers struggling against the grip of the tar. The fiercer the struggle, the more entangling the tar, and no beast is so strong or so skillful but that he ultimately sinks."

When all is going well investing for agility may seem a luxury. Why make capabilities genuinely independent so they can be switched in or out, or truly generic so they can be used in many different contexts if there's no obvious or short term ROI? By the time you can accurately compute the ROI it will probably be too late.

Ref: Fred Brooks: the mythical man-month, Addison Wesley, 1975