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The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done (English Edition) Kindle-editie
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Far from being yet another unproven, “super-exciting” new way to create a more energizing, prosperous, and meaningful mode of working, it is widely accepted and well established.
Author Stephen Denning worked at the World Bank in various management positions for decades, and after retirement, began a career as a management consultant. This book focuses on how some organizations are learning to operate in a way that is better for those doing the work, better for those who are recipients of the work, better for the organizations, and better for society.
The default operating system for almost every medium size and large-scale organization on earth is bureaucracy, an organizational caste system that discriminates between the thinkers (managers) and the doers (employees).
The bureaucratic system of management was designed to produce consistently average performance to a set of internal rules. Its vertical chain of command was never designed, nor is it capable of, moving fast enough to respond to a VUCA marketplace. The alternative paradigm, called by various names, is referred to as ‘Agile’.
The Agile movement began decades ago in the manufacturing arena but gained traction recently in an unexpected place - software development. It was published as the ‘Agile Manifesto’ in 2001. The unusual part is that no one would naturally associate the IT department with a robust management system.
The Manifesto values “individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan.”
Organizations that operate as Agile are capable of being highly innovative and efficient, as well as passion-filled and pragmatic. If this sounds too good to be true, consider well known companies that are shining examples of Agile applied.
Nucor, the most consistently profitable steel company in the world, practices radical transparency. Every employee knows the profitability of every order that it delivers. The frontline employees, not managers, are responsible for maximizing margins.
Morningstar, the world’s largest tomato processor, has no managers, and all key investment decisions are taken by ‘blue collar’ employees. Instead of moving decisions upwards at Morningstar, they have moved competence down to the individuals who have the information and the context to make the best decisions.
How do you get individuals to think and behave like owners and reap the financial benefits that flow from this? The organization must be tranformed into small, localized units, each with its own profit and loss responsibility. Essentially, you would have to dump the traditional management practices of manipulating both staff and trying to manipulate customers, and instead treat people as adults.
The more common alternative for extracting value out of a company is through financial engineering. This involves short-term cost-cutting, offshoring, share buybacks, tax dodges, and other devices. These can create the illusion of prosperity for investors, but they are in fact systematically destroying real shareholder value.
The Agile paradigm is neither easy for traditional managers to understand, nor to implement. Agile has become widespread and popular over the past decades, with tens of thousands of organizations around the world, having adopted its principles.
“The new management paradigm is a journey, not an event. It involves never-ending innovation, both in terms of the specific innovations that the organization generates for the customer, and the steady improvements to the practice of management itself,” Denning explains.
Agile management is based on three “laws”: the Law of the Small Team, the Law of the Customer, and the Law of the Network.
The law of the small team requires that work be done in small, autonomous, cross-functional teams, working in short cycles on relatively small tasks, and getting continuous feedback from the ultimate customer or end-user. When you work in such teams, situations can be analysed, decisions made, and action taken as a single, uninterrupted motion. Immediate conversations sort out differences, work can be fun, and everyone can be in a “flow” state.
This is very different to what we generally call a ‘team’. Most teams in twentieth-century organizations were teams in name only. Most of them weren’t real teams at all. The team-leader was a boss like in any other bureaucracy.
The law of the customer is that the highest priority is to satisfy the customer. In IT, that is early and continuous delivery of valuable software that is instant, frictionless, intimate, and preferably free.
Many managers are familiar with the phrase “The customer is number one!” while continuing to be internally focused, bureaucratic and fixated on delivering ‘shareholder value’. In an Agile organization, “everyone is passionately obsessed with delivering more value to customers. Everyone in the organization has a clear line of sight to the ultimate customer and can see how their work is adding value to that customer—or not.”
The third characteristic is the Law of the Network, where leaders are not fierce conquering warriors, but rather like curators or gardeners. You can’t command tomatoes to grow: you can only choose the most appropriate seeds and then provide the appropriate environment in which they can grow best.
When the whole organization truly embraces Agile, the organization is less like a giant warship and more like a flotilla of tiny speedboats. This law is the recognition that competence resides throughout the organization and outside the organization, and that through networking inside and out, problems can be solved, and innovation emerge.
Agile organizations are not flat – there is a hierarchy, but one of competence, not authority.
The author cites common mistakes leaders make when planning to implement and derive the benefits of Agile. These include introducing Agile as just another business process with top management hedging their bets on its success, by a less than fulsome commitment.
Then there is the mistake of rigidly apply a methodology conceived somewhere else, for some other business, and attempting to micromanage the change. And there is the common mistake too, of skimping on training and coaching, so that people only understand the idea, but don’t embrace its mindset as their very own.
When done right, Agile can continuously deliver more value to customers from less work, which results in terrific returns to the organization.
Readability Light --+-- Serious
Insights High -+--- Low
Practical High +---- Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of the recently released ‘Executive Update.
Initially, Denning summarizes the concept of Agile in 3 laws: the law of the small team, the law of the customer and the law of the network. Then Steve describes a number of success stories (eg Microsoft, Salesforce, Spotify). He then explains how organizations can make the step from Agile at operational level (especially aimed at existing customers and products) to the strategic level (diversification). Finally, he describes a number of pitfalls for management. In this part of the book Steve shares his critical insights about the theory of shareholder value, with a moral warning to C-suite executives.
What inspired me about this book is Steve's comparison of the current era, with the period in the 16th century in which Copernicus discovered that the sun does not revolve around the earth. In addition, Steve relates this to the period of industrial revolution: with the rise of the internet, it is no longer the large, industrial organizations that are at the center. But everything revolves around the customer. The long-term existence of an organization will depend on how it responds to this new era in an Agile way.
Steve Denning says: “If there were a Nobel Prize for management, which there isn’t, and if there were any justice in the world, which there isn’t, the creators of Agile would be Nobel laureates.”
The experiment that has been Agile for nearly twenty years, bravely and resolutely pursued by the Technology community has much to offer to traditional management and mainstream organizations.
The Age of Agile is an incredible field guide to help us navigate a customer-centric VUCA world of rapid and complex change. It provides history, business and economic context, practical applications, short and longer term case studies and most important of all, insights around mindset which are at the heart of Agile and the Agile Manifesto.
Denning has done a Herculean job in capturing the true depth and essence of Agile. Fortunate are those who will take this on to transform their organizations. The future belongs to those who will have the wisdom to partner with their technology colleagues, listening, learning and sharing with each other to shift from a world of predictability and control to one where innovation and responsiveness become the way we do work every day, in every way across the enterprise.
The silver lining is that these companies will experience unprecedented levels of high performance and engagement because peer accountability, purpose and pride will have eclipsed the shallow rewards of an outdated hierarchical bureaucracy.
Not to say that it will be easy but certainly it is a journey whose time has come and it can’t happen fast enough!