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What do Agile and Electricity have in Common?

In February, it will be 17 years since the writing of the Agile Manifesto. Much was, and still is, promised by those who espouse Agile frameworks. There is still a great excitement and appetite for increased agility. Yet most organisations, despite their best efforts, are not yet seeing the benefits. To explain why, let’s rewind 120 years and look to another exciting invention that initially failed to live up to the hype. Electricity.

When electricity was discovered hopes for this new technology were sky high. In 1878, the American Thomas Edison and the Brit Joseph Swan independently invented the incandescent filament light bulb in their respective countries. By 1881 Edison built electricity generating stations in Pearl Street in Manhattan and Holborn in London. A year later, he was selling electricity as a commodity. However, by 1900, less than 5% of mechanical drive power in factories was coming from electricity. Most still used steam. The few factory owners who had invested heavily in installing electric motors to replace steam engines were disappointed. They saw none of the promised productivity increases or cost savings. So what was going on here? Why did this revolutionary new technology, with so much promise, fail to provide much benefit at all? The answer lies in how electricity was implemented.

In traditional, steam-powered factories, mechanical power came from a single huge steam engine. The engine turned a central steel drive shaft which ran the length of the factory. Subsidiary shafts connected via belts and gears drove hammers, punches, presses, and looms. Everything was continually lubricated by thousands of drip oilers. Steam engines rarely stopped working. If a single machine in the factory needed to run, the coal fires needed to be fully up-and-running. This was highly inefficient.

Electricity promised to change all that. It promised to allow power to be delivered exactly where and when it was needed. Small steam engines were hugely inefficient but small electric motors could be perfectly viable. So, a factory could contain many small motors. Each driving a small drive shaft. In theory, every workbench could have a machine with its own electric motor. Power would not be transmitted through a single spinning drive shaft, but through thin wires.

A factory powered by steam needed to be sturdy enough to carry large, steel drive shafts. A factory powered by electricity could be light and airy. Steam-powered factories had to be arranged around the drive shaft. They were dark and dense. Electricity meant that you could create a production line and spread out. In steam-powered factories, the steam engine set the pace. In electricity-powered factories, workers set the pace. They were much more efficient because only the machine being used at any given time need to be powered.

However, the factory owners who did experiment with electricity merely ripped out the existing steam engines and replaced them with electric motors. They then expected all the cost savings and productivity gains to come pouring in. When they did not, they became disillusioned with electricity. What they did not realise is that you could not get the results merely by replacing the steam engine with an electric motor. You needed to change the whole design of the factory along with the production process. You even had to change the way workers were recruited, trained and paid to keep up with their new-found autonomy. Everything needed to adapt to the new way of working. Most factory owners were reluctant to make such big investments and so failed to reap the benefits.

In the end, change happened. It was unavoidable. By the 1920s, productivity in America was soaring in a way never seen before or since. Manufacturers had finally figured out how to use technology that was nearly half a century old. They had realised that there was no easy way. That they must change their architecture, logistics, and personnel. That they must fundamentally change the way they operate. That they must make the hard choices as well as the easier ones. Change on that scale takes time, imagination, courage and good old-fashioned hard work.

This story will sound familiar to every Agile coach out there. I have seen many organisations which train team members and expect the magic to happen without making any significant structural or cultural changes. When that magic fails to materialise, they claim that ‘Agile does not work here’. Nor will it unless they change the way they operate. By changing the organisational design, along with culture and practices, an environment will be created whereby huge competitive advantage can be achieved by increasing levels of agility. This involves more than a quick lick of paint. It is deep organisational change and it is hard. To survive in an increasingly complex and volatile world, however, it is necessary.

If we fail to learn the lessons from the story of electricity, many large, traditional organisations will only achieve true agility sometime around 2051… if they last that long.

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