The ten ways the agile revolution transformed society

The McDonaldization of Society


“An unstoppable revolution is now underway in our society, affecting almost everyone,” I wrote in The Age of Agile in January 2018. “The revolution is very simple. Organizations today connect everything and everyone, anywhere, anytime. They are able to deliver instant, intimate and smooth value on a large scale. They create a world where people, insights and money interact quickly, easily and inexpensively. For some, revolution is uplifting and beautiful. For others it is dark and ominous.”

Five years later, in February 2023, we can see that the unstoppable revolution has indeed fundamentally changed many aspects of society.

First, it showed that self-organized teams can’t just be fun and exciting workplaces. They can also be far more efficient and effective than bureaucratic ways of working if they have a strong focus on meeting unmet customer needs. The idea that bosses have to monitor every work step has proven to be unfounded, even with highly complex tasks. When teams themselves are able to fully complete the work in every respect, they can surpass the quality and speed performance of bureaucracy. By working in short cycles focused on client outcomes, progress can be closely tracked without detailed monitoring.

Second, companies like Amazon, Spotify, and SRI International have demonstrated how quickly innovation became a reality, along with the ability to respond to changing market conditions, customer needs, and new technologies. In such firms, a culture of experimentation encouraged employees to test new ideas and take calculated risks.

In 2020, when the Covid pandemic invented Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, remarkably effective vaccines were being developed in record time. In managing the disruptions of the pandemic, many organizations have learned to be agile and adapt on the fly.

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Third, agile thinking is at the core of the ecosystem or platform economy. When people are clear about what the goal is, they don’t need managers to make sure they do it.

Fourth, Agile enabled the emergence of trillion-dollar companies. It’s hard to remember that in 2018 there weren’t any companies with a market cap of more than $1 trillion in America. In the 2010s, many analysts wondered if we’d ever see any. In August 2018, we saw Apple rise as America’s first trillion-dollar company, and Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon quickly followed, although Amazon has since fallen to just under $1 trillion.

Fifth, in 2018, artificial intelligence was an obscure technology whose potential few could understand or realize. Today, more than 100 million avid users have signed up for ChatGPT, which poses a threat to Google Search. Launched as a prototype on November 30, 2022, ChatGPT quickly attracted attention for its detailed responses and articulated responses across many areas of knowledge. Within a few days it already had over a million users. In January 2023, ChatGPT reached over 100 million users, making it the fastest growing consumer application to date. His uneven factual accuracy has been identified as a disadvantage, but his ability at tasks such as writing poetry or even music and answering complex questions in simple prose opened people’s eyes to the possibilities of artificial intelligence.

Sixth, in 2018 Agile was still primarily viewed as a software phenomenon. Tesla has shown that agile thinking can be just as effective in manufacturing. As of January 2018, Tesla had a market cap of $57 billion. It’s now $659 billion — a tenfold increase.

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Figure 1: Tesla 5-year total return

Steve Denning; Alpha wanted

Seventh, video conferencing was rare in 2018. It was clunky and clumsy. Zoom showed how easy it is. When the pandemic struck, video conferencing and working from home became ubiquitous. Zoom became a verb.

Eighth, Agile began to spread to other unexpected places like law firms. The legal industry has an inherently conservative culture of legal practice in honoring and adhering to traditional practices, and agile practices are thriving.

Ninth, it instilled confidence in the possibility of democratic governance. Bureaucracy was not inevitable. Self-organizing teams were possible.

Tenth, it has opened up the possibility of reinventing the very discipline of management. From the time of the ancient Egyptians, organizations have tended to be dictatorial and autocratic, focused on providing standardized products and services. Today this is known as the “McDonaldization of society”. What we are seeing now is the beginning of a fundamental philosophical shift. We are on the verge of breaking free from the prison of autocracy and standardization – a social process that produces “mind-numbing uniformity.”

Next steps in the change process

Further steps must be taken to realize this full potential.

· Even in the software itself, reforms are needed, including how to deal with the bulk of “Fake Agile”, the proliferation of similar methods with different names, warfare between consultants, and hostility to common management issues.

· Agile didn’t just spread beyond software. It usually required active intervention and rethinking. This was partly because in many organizations there are unspoken and even unconscious assumptions about how work should be done. Agility was seen as a temporary aberration, and the return to bureaucracy was seen as normal.

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Deliberate steps are now needed to clarify the concept of this new way of managing in every aspect of the business, including what an agile top leadership team looks like and what agile budgeting or agile HR and agile risk management should be. When this is done, there is a good chance that we will have in our hands a humanized redefinition of the very concept of management.

And read too

When it comes to digital transformation, the hardest part is discarding the past

Why Agile needs to do the management itself

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My book Reinventing Capitalism in the Digital Age was published by Cembridge University Press in December 2015. I advise organizations around the world on leadership, innovation, management and business narratives. I worked for the World Bank for many years, where I held many senior positions, including Director of Knowledge Management (1996-2000). I am currently the director of the SD Learning Consortium. I’m also the author of The Age of Agile, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, and The Secret Language of Leadership.

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