by Bob Lewis

Agile Iron Chefs?

Mar 29, 2011
Enterprise Applications

Entrepreneurs and corporate managers are fundamentally different. Agile and Waterfall are different in the exact same way.

Entrepreneurs and corporate managers are fundamentally different. Agile and Waterfall are different in the exact same way.

ManagementSpeak: Sure the product can still be delivered on-time.  We can leverage our existing resources to implement these new features.

Translation: I have a lot of exempt programmers, so we can get as much free overtime as we need.

KJR Club member Jason Gill explains the nature of leverage.

Talk about tough-to-cross chasms …

How Great Entrepreneurs Think,” (Leigh Buchanan, Inc., 2/1/2011) describes seriously interesting research by Saras Sarasvathy on the difference between entrepreneurs and corporate managers.

Unlike the usual takes on the subject (this old column, for example), Sarasvathy spent hours with a statistically significant number of both in the context of solving typical business problems, comparing their verbalized thought processes to identify the differences.

Her conclusion: Entrepreneurs are “Iron Chefs” — improvisers who figure out how to make something terrific out of whatever is available at the moment. They “… constantly assess how to use their personal strengths and whatever resources they have at hand to develop goals on the fly, while creatively reacting to contingencies.”

Corporate managers, in contrast, are far more analytical. They start by defining goals, “planning the work and working the plan” to achieve them.


It’s a radical difference, which will, inevitably, lead to dramatically different organizational cultures that view each other with suspicion: Entrepreneurs generally consider corporate types to be paper-shuffling bureaucrats who, when Opportunity knocks, explain the procedure for requesting building access; while corporate managers see entrepreneurs as the dog from Up, able to hold an intelligent conversation, but only until … SQUIRREL!*

It also explains why entrepreneurs generally value outstanding employees far more than corporate managers, who consider it horrifying that an employee might be irreplaceable or nearly so — a crisis demanding immediate attention.

And, by the way, as companies grow and succeed they usually must make the transition from one to the other. Sarasvathy’s research helps explain why this transition is so incredibly painful and difficult.

It also presents something of a paradox: Those of us who have spent time thinking about business tend to celebrate entrepreneurship as the engine that drives success, even as we promote organized, goal-driven planning as its transmission (to push a metaphor harder than a metaphor should ever be pushed).

It appears this thought process is just wrong. Entrepreneurship and goal-driven planning just might turn out to be fundamentally incompatible — different models for organizing a business that fit very different circumstances and not, as so many of us have been thinking, complementary.

Is this just interesting theory, or does it matter to those who toil in the trenches of information technology?

Oh, yes. It matters a lot, even beyond its obvious value in helping you understand the executives and managers you work with every day. That’s because this difference between entrepreneurs and corporate managers matches perfectly the difference between how Agile’s proponents and those who prefer Waterfall methodologies think.

Talk to a Waterfaller and the proposition sounds entirely logical: If you don’t know what you’re supposed to build, there’s no way to put a coherent plan together to build it. That way lies madness. Agile? Its proponents live in a world in which they’re surrounded by … SQUIRRELS!

Talk to an Agilite and it’s a very different conversation, all about how business users don’t really know what they want until they have something to react to … how software development is more a voyage of discovery than a movie shot from a finished script.

This divide between entrepreneurs and corporate managers explains why, when attempting to adopt Agile techniques, IT managers with a corporate perspective focus on Agile’s relatively unimportant procedural dimension while ignoring or minimizing its essence: Iteration coupled with high levels of informal interaction with business users and managers.

They ignore and minimize Agile’s essence, not because they’re dullards but because they’re literally unable to even have the conversation. Process is how work gets done. The more organized and well-defined the process is, the more likely it is that success will happen. Including “build trust with business users,” and “call them whenever you have something interesting to show them or when you need to understand something better” in a swim-lane diagram is a non-starter.

So if you’ve been running a traditional Waterfall shop and want to introduce Agile as a better way of getting software efforts done, you aren’t likely to succeed by sending a few managers to a three-day training class. You’re dealing with a deep and wide change in culture that has to be driven by a whole different thought process on the part of everyone involved.

To make it happen, you just might need different leaders — internal entrepreneurs who see planning, not as the foundation of catching dinner, but as a great way to hunt prey that aren’t actually there, while missing all of the … SQUIRRELS!


* Gag borrowed from Jon Stewart because it’s too perfect to pass up.

————————- Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.