Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Agility and Sustainability: Complement or Clash?

It seems to me that both the concept of “agility” and the concept of “sustainability” have reached the point of real-world use where they will begin to intersect, especially in businesses, and where we will need to think about whether one should be subordinated to the other – because sustainability projects may detract from efforts towards agility, or agility efforts might detract from moves toward sustainability. Or, it may be that, fundamentally, the two complement each other, and can act in synergy. Since agility, at least, has proven its long-term worth in bottom-line results, and sustainability may turn out to be as necessary as the air we wish to breathe, the answer matters.

What follows is very far removed from daily reality. If business agility is fully achieved in a business – and we are so far from such a business that it is hard to say if it will ever exist – and if sustainability really takes over as a global business strategy and economic system – and we still do not know how such a system can function in the long term – then the relationship between the two will be a major issue. Still, some sort of answer would be helpful right now, so that as these two business and societal cultures lurch slowly into possible ubiquity, we can smooth the way for either/both. All we can do is paint with a broad brush; well, let’s get to it.

Setting the Stage: Similarities and Differences

Let’s start with business agility in its extreme form. Such a business (or society) is not focused on success as measured in money or power, but rather on changing rapidly and effectively. The reason this works is that all our institutions and thoughts bring us back to considering success – what we need from agility is a reward for constantly moving on from success. What grounds the agile business is constant negotiation with its customers and the environment as a whole, in which first one, then the other takes the lead in saying what to do next.

The mind shift described here is not as great as it sounds. In any given business, people want to learn, as long as it’s “safe”: it’s accepted by the people around you, people value you for being able to change as well as for specific accomplishments, you have some idea what to change to (i.e., the customer or end user gives you lots of suggestions), and the success rate of this type of thinking is high.

Such an approach has not only enormous positive side-effects on traditional but real measures of success – revenue, cost reduction, profit, customer satisfaction, power – but also great long-term psychic rewards – constant learning with constant positive feedback that what you are doing matters to other people as well as you, which can in some cases only end with the end of your life. In other words, once introduced, business agility can feed on itself – as long as it can get past the initial major mind and culture shift, which involves new metrics, new daily work routines, and baffling encounters with other parts of the company who are doing the same agility thing in a different way. But it all works out, because the work is more fun and because the new agile you starts treating those other parts of the company as customers.

Now let’s switch to the extreme form of sustainability. Wikipedia’s definition continually circles back to: preservation of a system’s ability to endure. More practically, this means: don’t put a system into such a state that it will break down. Usually, breakdown is done by scaling beyond the system’s ability to be patched, or destroying enough of the system’s infrastructure that it can no longer function. So, in my own definition, sustainability means creating a system that will not scale beyond a certain limit, forever, and will not destroy necessary infrastructure. All that we do, all the ways that we grow and change, are forever bounded by those limits – so a sustainable system is one in which not only are limits enforced, but the system itself encourages no violation of those limits. And yet, how do you do that without eventually banning all important change?

Well, strictly speaking, you can’t. And yet, you can indeed get so close to that, that we might well defer the problem until the end of the universe or thereabouts. The answer is equal parts “flight to the huge” and “flight to the virtual.” By that I mean, there are enough physical resources of certain types in the universe (like sunlight) that are beyond our capacity to exhaust for a very long time, and there is enough computer capacity even now that we can shift the things we do from physical to virtual for a very long time, and when we combine the two we see that most other limits that we are approaching can be handled for a huge amount of time by shifting them into the huge and virtual buckets as fast as we ramp up our systems.

The obvious example is putting carbon in the atmosphere. In a fairy tale world, we figure out how to capture and store sunlight with maximum effectiveness and level out its use, shifting from fossil fuels to handle our expanding use of energy as we increase in numbers and prosper. However, that’s not enough; we also need to wipe out that increase of energy usage. And so, we shift from physical to virtual, changing the content of our physical machines to include greater and greater amounts of software, avoiding the need for physical machines by accomplishing much of their tasks by software. This is not about making the physical worker useless before an omnipotent machine; this is about 6 billion people with 6 billion “virtual machines” doing more than what 5 billion people with 1 billion “virtual machines” were doing before, but with the same number of real machines and the same energy usage, ad infinitum. That’s “close enough” sustainability: you are not trapped in a pond, circling the same shores forever, but always flowing down a river that appears to be forever widening and changing, with enormous shores on either side and a riverbed that never deepens.

And now we can see the similarities and the differences between this type of sustainability and this type of agility. Here are the similarities:

• Both are all-encompassing mind sets, cultures, and processes that are clearly quite different from the ones we have now.

• Both are likely to be more effective – help us to survive more, help us to be better off physically and psychologically – than what we are doing today, in the long term.

• Both allow for growth and change – the growth and change that has brought us this far.

But, here are the differences:

• Agility is a more positive message: there’s always something to learn, something better to do; while sustainability is a more negative message: there are limits, and life is about staying within those limits.

• Agility is open and more uncertain, you assume that there will always be new things to do, but you have no idea what they are; sustainability is closed and more certain, as the things that matter are avoiding breakdowns, which are typically bounded problems that are physical, definable, and measurable.

• Fundamentally, agility focuses on changing and ignores survivability, and so improves your chance to survive; sustainability limits change in the name of survival, and who knows what that does to your ability to grow and change?

In other words, agility and sustainability can be seen as rivals for the better business, culture, and society of the future, which can all too easily either undercut the other in their competition for being the One True Way, or fight so fiercely that neither is achieved. And, as I noted in the introduction, either kind of “clash” outcome will eventually matter a lot.

Initial Thoughts on Synergy

It seems to me that there are two approaches that could ensure that, despite this, both agility and sustainability can thrive, and perhaps even reinforce each other. I call them the tactical and the strategic.

The tactical approach tries to manage combining agility and sustainability on a case-by-case basis. This means, for example, setting the boundaries of sustainability very clearly, so that they are intuitive for all, for the business as well as the society, and enforcing them strongly when clearly violated, but allowing endless agility within those boundaries. Carbon pricing is an example of the tactical approach: if effectively administered, it constantly sets clear monetary boundaries on carbon use, within a sustainable carbon yearly limit. Do that, says the tactical approach, and then let the business be as agile as it wishes.

The strategic approach, by contrast, seeks to create an integrated mindset combining agility and sustainability. One way to do this that I view as feasible is to get people used to the idea that trying to do the impossible is not the most effective way of doing things. As I have previously written, “working smarter, not harder” comes down to “instead of trying the impossible, be smart and focus your (in this case, change ideas) on things that are possible.” Knowing short-term and long-term limits becomes an essential part of the really agile business, because it allows people to increase the number of new ideas that are really good ones. But then, the strategic approach involves yet a third mind shift, to trying to work smarter instead of harder and seeing limits as positive idea-producers; how many mind shifts can we do, anyway?

Summing Up

My overall conclusion is brief: Tentatively, I lean towards taking a strategic approach to melding agility and sustainability, and applying it wherever frictions between the two crop up; but my main conclusion is that we had better start thinking more about tactical and strategic approaches, and how to do them, right now. It may be that the successes of agility will lead to a mindset that treats sustainability as yet another source of new ideas, and so we muddle through to survival; but I wouldn’t count on it. Much better to be proactive even when agility doesn’t call for it, and think about how to combine carbon metrics and agility metrics. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue preaching agility – because it’s fun – and keeping a wary eye on sustainability – because we may need it sooner than we think.

That’s as far as I can get. Ideas, anyone?

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