The history and future of agile working – It’s time to pay close attention to Japan

 

Agile* working, a team-based workstyle, is often discussed nowadays as a promising response to digital disruption, enabling organisations to act quickly as new opportunities or challenges arise. Agile practices have often been found to increase businesses’ capability to develop new products, services or solutions rapidly, effectively and responsively. It’s perhaps a lesser discussed fact that the principles of agile working are largely founded on Japanese concepts and philosophies. Revisiting these roots could assist with the evolution of agile working and its successful adoption in a variety of dynamically developing industries.

*To be clear, we are talking here about the workstyle and process which is at the focus of the Agile Manifesto, and has been applied extensively in software development, as opposed to the generic term Agile often used to describe flexible corporate workplace models.

 

Snapshots from the history of agile

Almost a hundred years ago, efforts were already being made to increase the efficiency of production by optimising working conditions and processes, also taking into consideration people’s physical, emotional and social needs. Then in the 1930’s, capitalising on the experiences of Elton Mayo, Walter Shewhart and W. Edwards Deming, a number of Japanese manufacturers started to use the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) methodology. The famous Toyota Production System, which embraced the philosophy of kaizen, was developed as part of this movement, and later become the primary source of today’s lean thinking.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, after studying fast-moving, innovative manufacturers such as Toyota, Ikujiro Nonaka – who is seen as the father of knowledge management – in collaboration with Hirotaka Takeuchi published several ground-breaking articles that identified new approaches for improving product design and development processes.

The SECI (Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination, Internalisation) model, introduced by the two authors, illustrates how knowledge naturally flows through different stages in organisations, and this model has become a key concept in knowledge management that agile practices draw from.

Their ideas formed the basis of the Agile Manifesto, developed by seventeen ‘organisational anarchists’ in 2001, which identified a set of values and principles of agile working that are still widely accepted today. With the application of the scrum concept, which incorporated Nonaka’s and Takeuchi rugby approach, creators of the Agile Manifesto envisioned an increase in productivity of 300-400 percent over existing software development practices.

 

Embracing the unique and unpredictable

Nonaka drew attention to the fact that people are intuitive and often unpredictable human beings, shaped by their experiences and environments, who interact with each other and their surroundings in their own ways. His perspective stood in contrast with the approach more popular in Western cultures: searching for universal, objective management principles while attributing less importance to factors that are difficult to measure, such as the ways individuals express themselves, learn and evolve.

As pointed out by Nonaka, relying on systems and processes that focus too narrowly on the efficiency of exchanging and storing information, and that treat people as interchangeable parts, can disrupt the natural flow of knowledge between employees, rather than enabling it. Nonaka’s views align beautifully with the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, which has been followed by the practitioners of agile from early on. Creating a culture of kaizen pursues a purpose that goes beyond mere efficiency; it builds on the unique contribution of every single member of an organisation, humanises the workplace, and ensures that people are nurtured and praised.

 

Agile is more relevant than ever

Conversations about organisational strategy reveal that today’s leaders and influencers are increasingly interested in working with human nature, similarly to the early proponents of agile working. Some of the most discussed subjects on professional education forums address the numerous idiosyncrasies of human psychology, including unconscious biases, emotion-driven decisions, and the ephemeral nature of creativity.

As people’s unique needs are being recognised, they find themselves drawn to people-centric workplaces. Knowing that they have choices, employees seek environments where they can express themselves authentically and contribute to the best of their ability, where they feel safe to be themselves, and where they don’t need to make major compromises in order to fit in. They believe that work should be an immersive and engaging experience, in which the physical space plays an important part.

Customer expectations are changing in similar ways; customers in service and knowledge-based industries tend to look for personalised services and up-to-date offerings, along with flowing communication and real relationships with providers.

These expectations in turn put pressure on organisations to continually evolve their services and communication strategies – a never-ending cycle, one which in fact calls for continually evolving agile work practices.

Apart from the challenges, these changes also bring great news for organisations that are prepared to reinvent themselves. Adaptability, diversity and inclusion are some of the key characteristics of environments where collaboration and innovation thrive. The discussed trends are also guiding companies to better prepare for the disruption caused by the growing prominence of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

 

Adopting agile practices – the first steps

Agile is a promising path for many businesses that want to remain relevant, quick and efficient. Since their initial application in manufacturing and software development, agile practices have expanded to a wide range of industries – including banking, retail, hospitality, entertainment and other services – and are likely to continue spreading to nearly every function of every industry, according to experts.

Beyond increasing efficiency, collaboration and innovation, adopting agile practices – in a conducive physical environment – also has the potential to turn the workplace into an environmental experience in every sense of the word, leading to exceptional engagement rates. (Perhaps this is why awards such as ‘Great Place to Work’ still tend to be dominated by software companies.)

Before committing to adopting agile, however, it is important to assess whether the key behavioural and thought patterns promoted by the new practices actually support the teams’ goals and purpose, enhance the culture of the organisation, and benefit the business strategy.

Nevertheless, adopting certain agile practices can be valuable even for the early process of exploring and evaluating options, and once the decision has been made to proceed, for implementing the changes – rather than trying to build a new future with outdated thinking. After all, creating a physical and cultural environment that enhances knowledge exchange and organisational performance is a complex challenge with many possible solutions, well suited to agile methodologies.

 

Agile principles that support the change process

Nonaka and his colleagues created a term ba, which refers to the environment and culture in which knowledge is created, utilised, and shared freely with the intention of creating something new. Ba enables the development of deep relationships and a fruitful collaboration between individuals, teams and organisations. Creating ba can benefit from informal interactions and uninhibited creativity, as opposed to sticking to rigid processes.

It might be worthwhile to start conversations from zero information, an agile technique where no prior knowledge is assumed, and where all team members are invited to share their own knowledge and experience of the subject. Beyond prompting the team to explore the subject from new angles, this exercise also tends to strengthen cohesion, and to establish a rhythm for future teamwork.

Intuition can also play a role in successfully adopting agile work practices. Experience shows that decisions based on the careful analysis of evidence and data still can turn out to be disastrous. On the other hand, leaders who know their team members well rarely get disappointing results when they allow their decisions to be guided by their intuition.

What gives agile practices their superpower is members’ ability to decide how best to approach a certain problem or task, and to quickly and seamlessly transition between different modes of work as required by the situation. This capability is a manifestation of the Japanese concept of phronesis – the wisdom and intelligence people need to possess in order to be able to bring out the best in others and benefit the common good.

Accordingly, for the successful adoption of agile, members of the design and implementation teams need to know exactly when to stick to well-defined processes and targets, and when to embrace flexibility and freedom. Furthermore, they should never lose focus of the most important assets and qualities of the workplace they are aiming to create, even when they don’t know how to measure them, which may include: social capital, collective intelligence, flow of knowledge, creative capacity, happiness and inspiration.

The cycles of agile

Cycles manifest on many levels: in social and industry trends, as well as on smaller scales, for example the way a simple idea moves through different stages of the knowledge creation cycle. The different incarnations of agile working also move through stages; instead of trying to define agile working by universal rules, pioneering organisations today are tailoring their practices to the immediate individual needs of their members and customers.

We believe it is time for agile working to find its way back home to Japan and be implemented anew, both in the ways work is organised and the ways the physical workspace is designed and used. And simultaneously, it is time that leaders in the rest of the world pay close attention to Japanese work practices again. They certainly have a thing or two to teach us about reaching organisational success through embracing the interconnected nature of technology, science, and humanity.

Calder Consultants has published the first part of a comprehensive paper, ‘The History and Future of Agile Working – Part 1: A Promising Solution to our Innovation Challenges’, describing key attributes of agile methodologies and the spatial implications, along with principles for their successful adoption. Click here to receive a copy.

The paper and this article were written by Anetta Pizag, James Calder and Rentaro Oku – all members of the Calder Consultants team. Calder Consultants is a specialist Workplace Strategy and Implementation firm with offices in Australia, USA and Japan.