The current Zeitgeist in a lot of business writing seems essentially to favor agile thinking. Peter Sims recent book Little Bets and Tim Harford’s book Adapt both go in this direction.
Both authors follow largely similar logic:
- The future is hard (sometimes impossible) to predict
- The best way to test something is to try it
- The more you test the more likely you’ll hit on something good
The result is a rejection of top-down planning and an endorsement of decentralized creative processes, with clear success metrics in place to pick winners and a framework to make sure you don’t lose so much in the iterative testing that the gains of a win are erased.
This is all good, the logic can’t be faulted and the process is appropriate in many situations. But crucially not all situations and that’s where I take issue with both books.
If things are as complex as they both argue they are, then isn’t a one-size-fits all answer a little too easy? The examples too, are very similar between the books. For example, the Iraqi War and defeating the insurgents shows that troops on the ground pioneered smart ideas that worked in building local trust and were then used broadly across the military. The Soviet Union showed top down planning was a non-starter, and Pixar demonstrates iteration from demo shorts of jumping lamps, to computer generated adverts to ultimately the pioneering success of Toy Story.
That’s all great, but what about the fact that the initial ‘shock and awe’ invasion of Iraq (if politically misguided) was an overnight triumph of top down planning? The Soviet Union failed, but China thus far could teach many other economies some tricks with a pretty high degree of command and control. Thirdly, whilst Pixar showed the success of incremental steps. Titanic and Avatar both show that James Cameron’s big bangs can be more successful than even Toy Story 3
Finally, didn’t Karl Popper make these very persuasive arguments about iteration and testing back in 1962
? Though, I admit his text is a little harder to read.
It’s great to see the tidal wave of support for agile processes, but let’s not forget that planning is needed in many circumstances. Indeed as Napoleon said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.”
In summary, both Little Bets and Adapt are well written books, but let’s not swing the pendulum over to agile processes too far and be careful about balance in the examples we pick for support.