I’d like to continue the discussion about creating a healthy organizational environment for adopting agile practices in my prior post by starting at the top. Somewhere at the top of most organizations, including startups, are the executives or leaders responsible for steering the ship. At some older companies, this can be someone who worked hard for years and finally was promoted simply due to hard work, dedication, and frankly, seniority. To be blunt, however, for a company to truly create an agile culture takes leaders who are willing to do a lot more work than they’ve already done.The folks (or person) at the top that I see run companies perfectly aligned with the right elements for agile success are those who are truly visionary leaders with a penchant for semi-calculated risk. A great set of leaders is looking out into the future, and not just looking at what successful companies are doing, but seeing the things they are not doing and sometimes, betting a good part of their future on an unproven idea.
A good recent example of two companies that exemplify this are Apple and Microsoft. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer recently announced that the company would be going “all in” on cloud computing. Put simply, this means that Microsoft will shift towards applications that use the internet for storage and processing power. Microsoft dismissed the importance of the Internet early in its inception, and came around with leading the way through many technologies including the first (albeit standards-flaccid) really powerful web browser with Internet Explorer version 4. However the company still spent most of its mindshare, research, and cultural energy on the world of PCs and a world with market dominance around Windows, and only began to really start building some true web applications recently, and under pressure. Steve Ballmer is the correct and perfect person, a leader at the top, to communicate this message of change to his company and users of their products. It’s his responsibility (though it will funnel down to and be reinforced by his reports) to be crystal clear about the direction of the company and what employees need to put their energy into to make his vision become reality. Though this represents a big shift (if they really do it) for a company like Microsoft, it’s still a calculated one. Google has been Steve’s #1 target for years and for good reason – they make a killing off apps hosted in the cloud. Microsoft wants a big part of that pie. The problem is, they are late to the game. They are also doing something innovative in the company’s eyes, but not in the rest of the world’s (other than those who turn a blind eye to all things non-Microsoft). Sure there are Microsoft developers that will be elated to pick up new skills that let them build the same types of apps available to other developers with better tool support and Redmond’s message of market viability of the shift behind them. But for end users it represents more of the same – a saturation of already existing, successful alternatives, with no real risk or innovation. This announcement will not be met with much resistance, surprise, or pushback. It really doesn’t mean every Microsoft technology-driven project will have to be “cloud enabled” to move forward, and there’s already a history of prior art in existing apps that show how to get there.
On the other hand, we have the Apple iPad announcement. Here is an idea that was tried years ago and failed, and is being attempted again with no recent success. The market is untapped, the potential may or may not exist, and if you do some even casual searching to see what folks think about it, you see lovers and haters. This represents a disruptive announcement that could change the game in computing, or fail horrendously. The difference between this and Microsoft’s announcement is that the iPad represents innovation that involves only semi-calculated risk. No one has been successful in a tablet-specific hardware market yet (don’t count the small number of windows-enabled tablet PCs, which are full PCs). It’s obvious that Apple is going after the netbook market (everyday users who don’t need the full capabilities of a computer but for which a phone is too restrictive), however there are no statistics about existing users that have already bought tablets that prove it will be a success. When someone like Steve Jobs makes an announcement like this, you can bet that Apple as a company is energized. They see themselves as risk takers and visionaries themselves, and will carry the message of change forward through the company with fire and conviction. This is how “buzz” is truly created in an industry.
You may think by reading this that I’m an Apple fanboy or hate Microsoft, but nothing could be further from the truth (we have Macs and PCs in my home, and I write Microsoft and Ruby for a living). I simply used these examples because they are high profile companies with announcements that support the topic. The important takeaway here is that choosing to go agile at a company takes courage. And that doesn’t mean courage by the project manager for the “pilot project” that will “try out” agile at a company. It means that the executive leadership at a company must foster a culture that encourages semi-calculated risk to fulfill vision. I have had the privilege of having a development manager who was a mentor to me in business for the first 12 years of my career at several companies, and he taught me something I’ll never forget. He said that with great risks come great rewards. Just like someone who plays the stock market, if you go conservative, all you can expect is mediocre results. And if you track the entire market, you will go down with the entire market. But if you have the courage to take risks, not only will you create the opportunity for great reward, but you shine a light down to the rest of your employees, partners, and customers that you are an important company to watch that will lead, and not simply ride the wave of prior successes to its eventual crash.
It’s unfortunate that due to how difficult the economy is right now, so many companies have let fear cripple their ability to innovate. Most don’t know it, but the majority of the economic growth in the United States and many developing countries is from small business, not established and large corporations. The ironic, true risk of Microsoft’s decision (or any company that chooses “change through emulation”), is that by the time the company has demonstrated leadership in cloud, the game may well have been changed. Rather energy could have been put into changing the game themselves. Even if a choice to innovate and take a risk results in failure, it almost never fails to generate buzz. And buzz is what gets employees excited, end users passionate, and creates the next market leader. If you have the courage, and are willing to see minor failures through to their eventual big success, your company can also lead the market by adopting agile practices.