Thriving in a Complex World

Agile Concepts that Every Business Leader Should Understand and get Behind

The world woke up to the challenges posed by the information age and started pursuing better ways of working way before I was even born (Tip: I have my own kid). Since then, a community of committed Agile practitioners, academics and thought leaders have made huge advancements in the area – helping businesses to compete in today’s fast-paced, shifting, and information-driven environment.

You’ve heard all the jargon, you’ve read a couple of blogs post, you’ve felt the pain of old ways of working, and even participated in a daily stand-up or two. But you’re thinking; ‘I’m busy?’ What does all this stuff really mean?’ ‘What do I need to know and how will this help me?’

Here is my view on the core Agile concepts that every business leader should understand and get behind in order to maximize the potential of their teams, innovate, stay ahead of the competition, and generally lead rewarding working lives!

One last thing, if you’re thinking ‘but we are Agile and we have been for some time’, then this one is definitely for you. I encourage you to read on, reflect, and question whether you’re really on track, or destined to be left behind by the competition.

Embrace and Lead Change

This one is easy to grasp; but to truly live out this concept, and reap the rewards, you might have to put your ego aside and challenge everything you know. You will definitely have to make an honest commitment to ongoing change.

The Agile community understands that in order to stay ahead businesses must be nimble and able to embrace change as a means of delivering innovative products and delightful customer experiences. The Agile community exists to find better ways of working and overcome challenges to meet the demands of an increasingly complex, technology-driven world.

We’ve all felt the pain of old working methods such as Waterfall where ‘experts’ work in silos, hand-offs are commonplace, information is rarely shared across departments, disappointment and confusion reign, and far too much money is spent with little to show in return. Agile ways of working are a community’s response to these challenges – based on many years of dedicated research and trial and error.

Embrace change in a meaningful way. Let go of the old command and control management approach. It doesn’t work. It makes people sad and stifles creativity. Commit to really understanding the alternatives to traditional working methods. Embrace and lead change. Without your understanding and support, your business will be unable to keep up with the competition.

None of this is new. A decade ago perhaps these words could simply have been regarded as mere opinion. However, we’re now seeing this premonition play out across industries. Many businesses are being threatened with extinction due to their inability to embrace technology and find better ways of working. They’re being pushed aside by their innovative and highly adaptive younger counterparts. Tech giant Amazon now controls a staggering near 50% of the US e-commerce market. The press is awash with reports that tech-savvy consumers are abandoning the UK high street in favour of online retailers that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Last year more stores than ever closed in the US, while here in the UK we lost Maplin, Toys R Us, and Comet. Others, such as House of Fraser, teeter on the edge of oblivion. In banking, a new breed of customer-centric ‘challenger banks’ are embracing technology and modern working practices to excite their customers by bringing new products and services to market far quicker then the behemoths could even imagine. Hence, Monzo just became Britain’s best-rated lender. Other big businesses such as media, pharma, and grocery are feeling the heat, too. The list goes on. It’s not going away.

So, while this might once have been considered an option, the only option now is to embrace change in order to stay competitive. Make change an integral part of your organization’s culture. Question everything. Constantly inspect and adapt.

‘Change or die. Clinging to the old ways of doing things, of command and control and rigid, will bring only failure. In the meantime, the competition that is willing to change will leave you in the dust.’ – Jeff Sutherland.

The good news is that there is an entire community of people who can support you on this journey. It will be liberating for you and your teams and help you create better products and services.

Build your Business Around Small, Autonomous, Cross-functional Teams of Amazing People

The essence of your business is your people. Firstly, seek to hire the smartest, highly motivated, emotionally intelligent, and creative people possible. Obvious, right? Secondly, make a deal with yourself to not get in their way. Don’t do it. Instead, invest in building a working environment that supports them. I’m not talking table tennis and bean bags here, I’m talking about making sure that each of your teams has the support, the people, and the tools needed for them to deliver their best work. Once you have the right people in the right seats trust these people to work with absolute autonomy. Let them make and own decisions. Let your people be awesome. Again, obvious, yet seemingly elusive for many businesses.

We’re asking you to challenge the management status quo and think differently. Start by inspiring your teams with a clear vision and then trust in people’s innate creativity and desire to evolve the world around them and create amazing stuff. Instil the values of commitment, trust, courage, openness, and respect in your team and remove anyone that is unable to live up to these values. Have the courage to promote healthy conflict within your teams and know that iron sharpens iron.

Put your Customers First

Successful businesses today understand that their continued existence centres around their ability to rapidly deliver value to their customers. Whether it be a service, an experience, or a product, customer-centric organizations have found ways to make their customers integral to who they are – an omnipresent thread running through everything they do.

A fundamental of Agile working methods is the rapid deployment of working product to the customer. This involves delivering small increments of value quickly and then soliciting regular feedback from end users. This feedback then fuels further product innovation – change is welcomed. But, customer centricity is much more than that, it’s truly knowing and empathising with your customers, understanding their needs better than they do, and making the delivery of value to these customers the sole focus of everyone on the team. Ask yourself this; when was the last time the people who built your products interacted with end users in any meaningful way?

When launched in 1995, it was with the mission ‘to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavours to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.’ They are still laser-focused on this aspect of their mission today. Maybe it’s a coincidence that they recently became one of the two trillion dollar businesses on the planet!

Base your Plans on Stuff You Know

Estimating and planning are important activities for a business. In fact, these activities are critical to the success of any activity – whether it be planning a family holiday, preparing a three-course meal, or delivering a multi-million-pound software project. Plans guide us and make sure that we make wise investments in terms of our time, money, and resources.

So we advocate for planning. What we don’t advocate for is the perpetuation of lies in the form of detailed up-front planning. Here we mean the type of plan that is created before any work has been done. A project plan that claims to know exactly what will be delivered, when, and how much it will cost. The fact is predictability, relevancy, and efficacy of planning decrease over time. We’re dealing with people here. Complex in their talent, creativity, and self. Complex people engaging in complex work – and if it’s really cool, work that no one has ever done before.

Ask yourself, do you really believe in these plans? No? Okay. Great. Let’s agree to stop lying to ourselves. Let’s agree to not do them anymore. Let’s agree to lend our talents to something more meaningful.

Instead, let’s embrace uncertainty and use an Agile approach to planning. Acknowledge that genuine knowledge is based on experience. Use methods that are honest about what we don’t know and instead focus on leveraging what we do know. Agile planning shuns detailed upfront planning in favour of iterative planning. Planning is continuous and based on real data. We plan often, deliver small pieces of value, and then inspect the deliverable and the plan. We make changes as needed. We value new information and change as a means of delivering better ‘value first’ products to our customers.

Don’t allow people to waste their time (and your money) creating detailed specs and meticulous but fictitious project plans. Yes, these things are reassuring. Comforting even. But they should be treated with the same scepticism as a horoscope found in the back of a newspaper – chip wrapper. Instead, plan a bit, do a bit, check it, and then take action to make it better. Get people talking.

Waste is Wrong and Stupid

Central to the success of any truly great team is a commitment and discipline around identifying and removing waste. A continuous improvement culture is a core attribute of a winning team. It means identifying working methods that expend effort carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose of all, then boldly replacing them with better ways of working so that we don’t stay busy fools forever. It is tireless and highly collaborative. It holds no prisoners and does not recognize ego. It does not respect hard work over value.

Take a look around your place of work. How many processes are in play day in day out that add no value at all. Processes that waste time and resources. Processes that are laughable in their absurdity but you keep doing them anyway. Endless email, actionless meetings, rework, inefficient multi-tasking, general acquiescence to poor working practices so as not to offend the well-meaning busy fool. If this is happening in your place of work or business (and it is) you need to seriously look at why the culture is allowing this and then seek to change it – quickly. Make continuous improvement a core attribute of your team.


There are many facets to Agile. Many concepts and opinions – each with merit and offering great value. Through my lens, I have highlighted why healthy self-directing customer-centric teams and a commitment to focused change is vital to the success of your business. We’ve agreed to stop the crazy upfront planning and have made a pact with ourselves not to be the busy fool.

But in the end, Agile ways of working aren’t perfect. Agile will not offer all the answers. In fact, Agile is not really a thing at all. What ‘it’ is, is a mindset. A never-ending pursuit dedicated to change. It’s about the positive evolution of our ourselves, our working environments, and our communities.

There is room for everyone on this journey. We will all benefit from the effort we put forth but only if we approach things with honesty, curiosity, and discipline. No one wants to be the busy fool. We’re better than that.


Hirotaka Takeuchi & Ikujiro Nonaka. ‘The New New Product Development Game’. Harvard Business Review. 1984.

Marty Cagan. Waterfall Deconstructed. Web – 2018

Dan Pink. In The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Web. 2010.

Mike Cohen. Agile Estimating and Planning. Prentice Hall. 2005.

Jeffery Liker. The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer. CWL Publishing Enterprises, Inc. 2004.


Go to the profile of Paul Marshall

‘I help teams re-frame how they think about product development.’


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