Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Four Definitions of Agile

According to Maruyama (1980), human thinking progresses in four roughly generalizable categories, in this particular order: hierarchical, independent-event, homeostatic and morphogenetic. These epistemologies can be roughly mapped to an understanding of oneself and one's environment as has been done in the Cynefin model. Chaotic environments call for morphogenesis, complex environments go along with maintaining homeostasis, in complicated envirnoments independent-event models can be drawn, and in simple environments hierarchical models prevail. Thus, although hierarchical thinking is at the beginning of understanding, it may only be applied to those environments where simple understanding has been established. Each of these four epistemologies has its own definition and understanding of the concept agile, expressed in its respective cognitive context:

1. Hierarchical: Agility is seen in terms of non-looped control theory where steering is possible. Agility, from the point of view of the person who steers, is seen in the ease of the steering process. The prevailing metaphor is the military. Steering is simplified, if the underlying ressources are more tightly coupled with the one who steers and at the same time follow his commands in an easier fashion, so the helmsman can produce his own result more effortlessly. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • Subordinates follow commands with less resistance.
    • Subordinates work faster.
    • Reprioritization can be done as seen fit.
    • New jobs can be thrown in at any time.
    • Status can be obtained at any time and flows back from self-driven systems whenever it is needed.
    • Subordinates read the wishes from their superior's lips.

2. Independent-Event: Agility is compared to viscosity in an equally distributed environment. Being agile in this epistemology means to show a tendency towards the mean, thus a lack of agility is blamed on people's insising to be different or unique. The prevailing metaphor is the steam engine. High potential translates to high velocity, thus agility has to do with speed. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • The Gaussian end-tails of anything eliminate themselves and magically revert to the mean.
    • People who deviate from the norm work their ass off to conform to standard.
    • Self-optimizing process frameworks excel, delivering high gloss auto-documentation to those who are in authority.
    • Everybody concentrates on what is most important in a joint effort at any time.
    • The output of the engine is always routed into the most important task that is defined by management.
    • If a subject needs to be penetrated, its viscosity becomes liquid, and if energies need to be concentrated, they become hard like a crystal.
    • High potential translates to high velocity, just as the steam engine does.
    • There is no environment, our model simply has a couple of blind spots left.
    • Everything leaves without traces left behind.

3. Homeostatic: Agility is seen as the capability to maintain an equilibrium. Those who are agile can perform the necessary actions so they can never be thrown off balance, no matter what influences from the environment are hitting on them. The prevailing metaphors are organisms. Thus, agility is rated in terms of survival of the individual, its immunity, which enables conservative strategies. Stable trends emerge as eigen-values. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • Redundancies magically eradicate any malfunction.
    • Subsystems function so robust and self-repairing they are virtually unbreakable, and rendundancies are available wherever that is not possible.
    • Any environmental perturbation will immediately be compensated and equilibrium regained.
    • Maintaining an equilibrial steady-state is the highest ideal.
    • Everything immediately drifts towards an organic optimum. 
    • People work like organs: Internally with perfect cohesion, externally with seamless collaboration.
    • Cells that die are instantly replaced (apoptosis and regrowth).
    • Heroes never fail.
    • To direct all the organism, a small group of highly intelligent, exceptional managers orchestrate these organs. A notion of agility is felt, if the organism as a whole complies to the managers' intended strategy.

4. Morphogenetic: Agility is seen as the ability to change and adapt, along with a shift from "agility as velocity" to "agility as rapid learning". Change and failure are necessary for learning. Change and deviation create the necessary variations upon which new possibilities emerge. Learning means to find out which alternatives are able to survive, on a cultural rather than individual perspective. Thus change and deviations are cherished, and failure marks the necessary boundary of that which works. If that what does not work has been eliminated, whatever is left does work and its combinations yield the material for subsequent attempts. Processes are usually combinations of closed and open causal-loops. Trends form as non-equilibrial steady-states that are stable for a certain span of time and subsequently may fundamentally rearrange. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • Change is cherished, as it creates opportunities.
    • Failure is necessary, as it constantly re-evaluates the boundary of that which does work.
    • Heroes fail more often than everybody else, but get back up one more time than they fail.
    • More learning steps in a shorter time guarantee survival.
    • Constant communication of individual players is necessary.
    • Teams form temporary as topics dictate the need.
    • Everybody can orient themselves in an automagical way.
    • Every contribution is equally valued, cherished and important.
    • Things and issues inherently manage themselves.
    • There is no directive, command, control, restraining process or organistic pressure to comply.
    • What are managers?
    • A harmony of diversity flourishes in the Garden of Eden.

Apparently, in any particular organization, there will be people of all these epistemologies. Their mutual definitions of agile vastly differ. The more pressure one exerts on one particular organization, the more a regression towards the hierarchial end can be expected, as it is the easiest available strategy of thinking. Maintaining morphogenetic strategies even in times of high strain is a skill that has to be trained. It does not come natural for human instincts that are biologically rooted in anxiety driven fight or flight reflexes. Mindfulness meditation may help develop the mind to be able to keep one's composure even in highly turbulent and volatile environments, to be able to see clearly through the fog.

Live long and prosper


Maruyama, M. (1980). Mindscapes and science theories. Current Anthropology, 21(5), 589- 608.