The Case Against Agility

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Leadership has always required the willingness to move in directions that peers avoid. Great leaders have the ability to convince, or induce, others to follow. Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Jobs, for instance, stared down the derision of analysts and peers when he first opened Apple retail stores. Those outlets attracted millions of consumers who were new to the brand and have achieved the highest retail sales rates ($5,546 per square foot in 2016) of any retail brand. Microsoft and Sony followed Apple’s lead with brand-specific technology retail stores.

Leaders today face a particularly consequential need to question conventional wisdom. They must wean their companies away from three ideas that have anchored technological decision-making for over a decade but that have become dangerous for our current age. Making this shift will be difficult because the costs will be immediately apparent whereas the benefits may not come for years. The three ideas that must go are:

  • Agility, which prizes the ability to rapidly change established strategies, assets, or processes;
  • First-mover advantage, which decrees that whoever introduces a new product or service or technology first will almost inevitably win; and
  • Minimum viable product, which encourages the release of early versions of products or services, letting the market decide whether to give these early versions further support.

The collective output of these ideas is a very strong bias toward accelerating a project’s speed to market. But the broad acceptance of these ideas, which are pronounced sacrosanct by those academics and consultants who are mesmerized by startups, is incomprehensible.

While a case can be made for their value to venture capitalists, who want portfolio companies to produce quick returns, the business landscape is littered with examples of how these strategies fall short. Agility can help in volatile conditions, but it is useless, and even detrimental, in uncertain, complex, or ambiguous ones. First-mover advantage is demonstrably fallacious: Many exemplar innovators — including Google, Amazon, and Facebook — weren’t first to market. And the idea of a minimum viable product is flawed for many tech products. Should Boeing launch a minimally viable airplane? Should GE Healthcare launch a minimally viable CT scanner?

Why Speed-Centric Goals Are So Dangerous Today

These three ideas are highly unsuitable for the emerging digital world. At an organizational level, two trends I discussed in prior articles — distribution of work over time and geography and thought-driven, not muscle-powered, work — are dramatically increasing environmental uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. At a technological level, ever-more-interconnected software and software-hardware systems are doing the same. In these conditions, we need more thoughtfulness rather than more speed.

The spontaneous fires of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, which led to the recall of over a million devices, illustrate the danger. “In the Samsung culture, managers constantly feel pressured to prove themselves with short-term achievements,” Kim Jin-baek, who worked at Samsung until 2010, told The New York Times. The company’s relentless focus on speed “focused on maxing out the capability of components like the battery,” noted the Times, leading the company to release a product in which flawed design and inadequate testing afflicted two different types of batteries, which caught fire for unrelated reasons. A bias toward speed over thoughtfulness slowed the diagnosis of the problems and tarnished the reputation of a partner, Korea Testing Laboratory, in the process.

In the near future, every “minimally viable product” developed with “great agility” to seize “first-mover advantage” will carry within it the potential to harm not just a company but the economy. The internet of things will connect products and services to other products and services, systems to other systems, and companies to other companies. Consequently, our ability to diagnose and fortify failure points will be challenged so much that Samsung’s one-company-and-its-partners crisis will seem like child’s play.

We have seen this happen in a different context. The global financial services industry is the best prototype we currently have of such a hyperconnected world. Its links across products, processes, and organizations enabled the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States to spread with blinding speed. It produced the Great Recession of late 2007 to mid-2009, and ravaged the economies of far-off countries. Experts passionately offered contradictory advice for how to respond, and, for most part, regulatory authorities and even the financial institutions themselves seemed unable to contain the crisis.

While we can’t do much about the organizational and technological changes that are under way, we can reform how we create digital products and services. Executives who continue to blindly follow the siren song of speed at all cost are abdicating the right to be considered leaders. They are no longer making the best decisions humanly possible for their organizations, people, or society at large.

Three Steps to Take Now

As a leader, what should you do?

First, let two questions be your operational guide for new technology initiatives:

  • “If we are wrong, how quickly can we fix this and at what cost?” If the speed and cost for fixing errors and miscalculations are acceptable, by all means proceed with agility, aim to be first to market, or launch minimally viable products. Otherwise, stiffen your backbone and demand thoughtfulness.
  • “What’s our policy for testing the core idea at each stage?” Establish a rigorous regimen of testing during development. If the core idea fails in a complex, uncertain, and ambiguous environment, the full-fledged idea inevitably will. If the core idea succeeds, the initiative will have earned the right to advance further.

Second, emulate great leaders and craft simple messages making your case. Ask people to justify agility when five-year grandiose development plans are no longer the norm. Tell stories of great innovators who weren’t first to market. Remind people that the idea of minimally viable products originated in efforts to quickly find and fix bugs in stand-alone consumer software. Explain why these ideas are less relevant for apps, distributed software, and software-impregnated hardware. When you think people understand, deliver the messages again.

And third, truly understand that while the failure to be in tune with time will be a failure to lead, doing the right thing may endanger your job. Persist anyway! Goldilocks-like, search for the “just right” middle between speed and tardiness. Speed that impedes thoughtfulness is worse than tardiness: While tardiness can hurt your own institution competitively, excessive speed may land you on history’s list of incompetent business executives. The pain of change will be real, and the value of your foresight may only be apparent when your company escapes the mayhem that others, steered by lesser executives, can’t.

Abandoning the three ideas won’t slow down innovation. Apple’s new products and services aren’t chock-full of bleeding-edge technology, and yet Samsung has been playing catch-up for years. The Note 7 was supposed to make Samsung the innovation pacesetter, but it did the opposite.

Thoughtfully and efficiently created ideas generally outperform slipshod ones. Aspiring leaders will do well to remember this in an increasingly interconnected digital world.



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Comments (7)
Chuck Lane
First, I applaud the authors of the other comments for maintaining a civil discourse on a subject prone to the intense tribalism of (I need) Agile methodology (per YouTube video!-) I agree with them that Amit swung and missed on the concept that Agile is not suited for complex or ambiguous problems. Indeed, that's the primary use case. However, his point is valid about practitioners needing to be thoughtful prior to initiation and contemplating the cost of remediating a failed MVP. Regulatory non-compliance or reputation damage can far outweigh advantages of rapid adaptation in fixing deficiencies. Indeed, this would be an excellent facilitated discussion to help all parties explore that while Agile (Lean, SDLC, etc.) may be an excellent hammer, not every problem is a nail.
Dr. Kenneth Salchow, DBA
I, too, would argue the author's perception of a "minimally viable product", particularly using Samsung as an example.  By definition, Samsung's product was not viable, even minimally so.

Having worked in psychometric assessment for many years, we use a term "minimally qualified candidate" (MQC) to differentiate between those who have the knowledge/skills we seek, and those who don't.  The MQC represents the least amount of knowledge that we are comfortable calling "qualified".  Rather than being a negative, there are minimally qualified surgeons and airplane pilots performing those jobs at this very moment.  It's like the old joke "what do you call the individual who graduated last in their medical school class?"  "Dr.".

Similarly, an MVP is the minimal product (core functionality) necessary to deliver value to the customer, not a half-baked, incomplete product.  Furthermore, it is not simply intended to achieve first-mover advantage, but to encourage co-creation and collaboration with the users of the product to refine and shape the long-term product in their image. It is only the first step in an iterative process to harness the users in defining the value propositions.

Blaming a well-validated practice with substantial empirical support simply because many organizations execute it poorly or incorrectly is like blaming the hammer for a poorly built house.  "Agility" is not the problem.  Impatience, greed, and incompetence is.
Everline Ouma
While this was an interesting read that made me think; I agree with what Mario said. Minimum viable product represents the minimum specs for a product or solution to be effective or to have customer value, its a very helpful concept to utilize when developing solutions. Secondly, in my opinion agility is about adaptability and not about getting something delivered at break neck speed. That being said, the two questions on how quickly can we have a fix if we are wrong and how to test the core functionality are definitely factors of having an minimum viable product.
Karen Walker
Dear Amit,

Thank you, your article was a rewarding one to read.

Species, humans and organisations have had to adapt to thrive and survive in changing environments, is Agile one tactic of many that some organisations use to do so in response to rapid technology advancements?

Another interesting question, one discussed a lot amongst Agile Evangelists, is agility one of many contributors to adaptiveness, or is adaptiveness a contributor to agility? Also what part does empiricism and knowledge play in highly complex, new and ambiguous environments? What situations require deep reflection, creative and critical thinking for a strategic 'long game' that go beyond a specific tactical response?

Thanks for igniting this discussion.
Kind regards,
Karen Walker
Greg Tutunjian
I agree with the previous 2 comments (Mario and Anthony) - My wish is that Amit was facilitating an active discussion for this topic and related themes and not using the confines of a blog post to express his perspective on Agility and related disciplines, practices and outcomes.

For a blog post, there are too many strong themes and points here (so the reading experience is jarring and not as fluid as I'm certain Amit expected it to be.)  I'd like to see Amit take one theme and explore that in greater depth (instead of attempting to relate them, here.)

My suggestion: "...we need more thoughtfulness rather than more speed."  How does thoughtfulness translate into strategy, activities, outcomes and reflection with feedback loops?   How do you "sell" thoughtfulness in a culture where we're increasingly told "faster", "fail sooner" (but you'd better not fail without adding value...definition to be determined), etc.
Anthony Caldera
I agree with this article if placed in certain context, however the article itself seems devoid of any specific context outside of the “emerging digital world.”

•	The author makes a great point that Agility is “useless, and even detrimental … in uncertain, complex, or ambiguous” cases.  As I have seen it, Agility has been implemented in cases of defined problems, such as a specific goal in the development of software. It serves as the route and not the destination. A problem that remains uncertain or ambiguous will remain as such until it is defined, regardless of the approach that is used to address it. 
•	The idea of First Mover Advantage” has been shelved with the onset of the emerging digital world.
•	Lastly, there were countless contributions to the economic collapse of the late 2000’s. I hardly think the three concepts in question would land in the top 10.

The two questions to ask in developing new technology are valid, independent of the preceding arguments. 

Anthony Caldera
Mario López de Ávila Muñoz
Dear sir,

An MVP is not an "early version of a product or service", it is whatever artifact lean entrepreneurs build to validate, fast and cheap, their hypotheses.  Is a common mistake, but an MVP is not a product, it is anything you use to verify assumptions and hypotheses, even yourself.  Most famous MVP is the so called "Concierge MVP", in which "you are the product".

Regarding Agility, I'm afraid I have to disagree too.  Agility is paramount strategy for a VUCA World and the best response we know to Complexity, because Agility is not raw speed, is ADAPTATION.  As Dave Snowden (of famous Cynefin framework) says, in Complexity you have to be Agile: Probe, Sense and Respond (adapt).

And about First mover advantage... Does anybody still believe that?

Best regards,

Mario López de Ávila Muñoz