Monday, March 5, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Harper’s Fate of Rome and Climate Change’s Effect On Empires

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Note:  My focus in these “reading new thoughts” posts is on new ways of thinking about a topic, not on a review of the books themselves.
Kyle Harper’s “The Fate of Rome” provides new climate-change/disease take on that perennial hot topic “reasons for the fall of Rome.”  Its implications for our day seem to me not a reason to assume inevitable catastrophe, but a caution that today’s seemingly resilient global economic structures are not infinitely flexible.  I believe that the fate of Rome does indeed raise further questions about our ability to cope with climate change. 
Climate Change’s Effect on the Roman Empire
As I understand it, “Fate of Rome” is presented as a drama in 5 acts:
1.      A “Roman Climatic Optimum” or “Goldilocks” climate in the Mediterrean allows the development of a state and economic system, centered on Rome and supporting a strong defensive military, that pushes Malthusian boundaries in the period up to about 150 AD.
2.      A transitional climatic period arrives, and runs for 200 years.  For several decades, the Plague of Cyprian (smallpox) rages and some regions tip into drought, leading to 10-20% population losses, and massive invasion against a weakened military.  Order is then restored at a slightly lower population level from that in 150 AD.
3.      At about 240 AD, another plague (probably viral hemorrhagic fever) arrives, accompanied by widespread drought in most key food-supplying regions (Levant, north Africa, and above all Egypt).  Northern and eastern borders collapse as the supply of soldiers and supplies dries up.  Again, recovery takes decades, and a new political order is built up, breaking the power of Roman senators and creating a new city “center” at Constantinople.
4.      At around 350 AD, a Little Ice Age arrives.  Climate change on the steppe, stretching from Manchuria to southern Russia, drives the Hsiungnu or Huns westward, pushing the existing Goth society on Rome’s northern border into Roman territory.  Rome’s western empire collapses as this pressure plus localized droughts leads to Gothic conquests of Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and Italy.  Rome itself collapses in population without grain shipments from abroad, but the economic and cultural structure of the western Roman state is preserved by the Goths.  In the early 500s, as the Eastern Empire recovers much of its population and economic strength, Justinian reconquers North Africa and much of Italy, again briefly and partially reconstituting the old Roman Empire.
5.      At 540 AD or thereabouts, bubonic plague driven by changes in climate for its animal hosts in central Asia arrives from the East.  The details of the illness are horrific and it is every bit as devastating as the Black (also bubonic) Plague in medieval times – 50-60 % of the population dead, affecting rich and poor, city and rural equally, with recurrence over many decades.  Only Gaul and the north, now oriented to a different economic and social network, are spared.  Villas, forums, and Roman roads vanish.  The Eastern frontier collapses, again due to military recruit and supply decimation, and a prolonged deathbed struggle with Persia ends in the conquest of most of both by Islam in the early 600s.  The only thing remaining of the old Roman state and its artifacts is a “rump” state in Anatolia and Greece. 
Implications for Today
As Harper appears to view it, the Roman Empire was a construct in some ways surprisingly modern, and in some ways very dissimilar to our own “tribe”-spanning clusters of nation-states.  It is similar to today in that it was a well-knit economic and cultural system that involved an effective central military and tax collection, and could effectively strengthen itself by trade in an intercontinental network.  It is dissimilar in that the economic system (until near the end) funneled most trade and government through a single massive city (Rome) that required huge food supplies from all over the Mediterranean; in that for most of its existence, the entire system rested on the ability of the center to satisfy the demands of regional “elites”, thus impoverishing the non-elite; and in that they had none of our modern knowledge of public health and medicine, and thus were not able to combat disease effectively. 
What does this mean for climate change affecting today’s global society?  There is a tendency to assume, as I have noted, that it is infinitely resilient:  Once disaster takes a rest in a particular area, outside trade and assistance complement remaining internal structures in recovering completely, and then resuming an upward economic path.  Moreover, internal public health, medicine, and disaster relief plus better advance warnings typically minimize the extent of the disaster.  The recovery of utterly devastated Japan after WW II is an example.
However, the climate-change story of Rome suggests that one of these two “pillars of resilience” is not as sturdy as we think.  Each time climate-change-driven disasters occurred, the Roman Empire had to “rob Peter to pay Paul”, outside military pressures being what they were and trade networks being insufficient for disaster recovery.  This, in turn, made recovery from disaster far more difficult, and eventually impossible. 
Thus, recovery from an ongoing string of future climate-change-driven disasters may not be sufficiently able to be internally driven – and then the question comes down to whether all regional systems face ongoing disasters unable to be handled internally, simultaneously.  Granted, the fact that our system does not depend on regional elites or fund a single central city are signs of internal resilience beyond that of Rome.  But is the amount of additional internal resilience significant?  This does not seem clear to me.
What remains in my mind is the picture of climate-change-driven bubonic plague in Rome’s interconnected world. People die in agony, in wracking fevers or with bloody eyeballs and bloody spit, or they simply drop dead where they are, in twos and threes.  Death is already almost inevitable, when the first symptoms show, and there is no obvious escape.  If by some miracle you live through the first bout, you walk in a world of the stench of unburied bodies, alone where two weeks ago you walked with family, with friends, with communities.  All over your world, this is happening.  And then, a few years later, when you have begun to pick up the pieces and move back into a world of many people, it happens again.  And again.
If something like that happens today, our world is not infinitely resilient.  Not at all.   

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Transition From Agile Development to the Agile Organization Is Beginning to Happen

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Recently, new publications from CA Technologies via Techtarget arrived in my in-box.  The surveys mentioned in them confirmed to me that the agile organization or agile business is beginning to be a Real Thing, not just vendor hype. 
Five years ago, I wrote but did not publish a book on the evidence of agile development’s benefits and implications for creation of a truly agile business or other organization.  Now, it appears not only that the theoretical foundation has been laid for implementation at least of agile processes in every major department of the typical business, but also that a significant subset of businesses now think that they have at implemented agile according to that foundation across pretty much all of the enterprise – yes, apparently in a few cases including legal (what does legal-department agility mean?  I have no idea, yet).
So what are the details of this evidence?  And what benefits of an agile organization seem to be proving themselves?

The Solid Foundation of Agile-Development Benefits

It is now approaching a truism that agile development delivers benefits compared to traditional software-development approaches.  My own survey during my brief re-up at Aberdeen Group 9 years ago suggested improvements in the 20-30 % range for project cost and speed, product quality, and customer satisfaction (with the obvious implication that it also decreased product-development risk by around that amount, as Standish Group studies also showed).  One striking fact was that it was achieving comparable results when compared to traditional approaches focused on cost and/or quality.
One CA pub (“Discover the Benefits of Agile:  The Business Case for a New Way to Work) extends these findings to agile development plus agile project management.  It says that a “summary of research” finds that agile delivered 29 % improvements in cost, 50 % in quality, 97 % in “productivity” (something like my “speed”), 400 % (!) in customer satisfaction, 470 (!!) in ROI (a proxy for revenue and profit), compared to the “least effective” traditional approaches. 
While this may sound like cherry-picking, my research showed that the most effective traditional approaches were not that much better than the least effective ones.  So I view this CA-cited result as the “practice effect”:  experience with agile development has actually increased its advantage over all traditional approaches – in the case of customer satisfaction and profitability, by really large amounts.

The Theoretical Case For Business Agility

Note, as I did back when I did my survey, that agile development often delivers benefits that show up in the top and bottom line of the success-critical-software-developing business, even before the rest of the organization attempts to go agile.  So why would it be important to go the rest of the way and make most or all of the organization agile?
The CA pub “The State of Business Agility 2017” plus my own work suggest that potential benefits of “agile beyond software development” fall into three areas: 
1.      Hard-nosed top and bottom line benefits:  That is, effects on revenue, cost, and margin (profit).  For example, better “innovation management” via agile project management goes to the top line and eventually to the bottom line, and in some cases can be measured.
2.      “Fuzzy” corporate benefits, including competitive advantage, quality, customer satisfaction, speed to act and change strategies, and reduction in negative risks (e.g., project or IT-infrastructure failures) and “fire drills”.
3.      “Synergy” benefits stemming from most of the corporation being on the same “agile page” with coordinated and communicating agile processes, including better collaboration, better/faster employee strategy buy-in, better employee satisfaction through better corporate information, and better “alignment between strategy and execution.”
The results of the CA business-agility pub survey suggest that most respondents understand many but not all of these potential benefits before they take the first step towards the agile business.  I would guess, in particular, that they don’t realize the possible positive effects on combating “existential risks”, such as security breaches or physical IT-infrastructure destruction, as well as the effects on employee satisfaction and better strategy-execution alignment.

The Extent of Agile Organizations and Their Realized Benefits

Before I begin, I should note two caveats about the CA-reported results.  The first is that respondents are in effect self-selected to be farther along in agile-organization implementation and more positive about it.  These are, if you will, among the “best and the brightest.”  So actual agile-organization implementations “on the ground” are certainly far less than the survey suggests.
Second, CA’s definition of “agile” leaves out an important component.  CA’s project-management focus makes part of its definition of agility to be holding time and cost in a project constant while varying project scope.  What that really means is that CA de-emphasizes the ability to make major changes in project aims at any point in the project.  In the agile-organization survey, this means an entire lack of focus on the ability to incrementally (and bottom-up!) change a strategy rather than just roll out a whole new one every few years.  And yet, “more agile” strategy change is at the heart of agility’s meaning and is business agility’s largest long-term potential benefit.
How far are we towards the agile organization?  By some CA-cited estimates, 83% of all businesses have the first agile-development step at least in their plans, and a majority of IT projects are now “agile-centric.”  Bearing in mind caveat (1) above, I note that 22% of CA-survey respondents say they are just focused on extending “agile” to IT as a whole, 17% are also working on a plan for full business agility, 19% have gotten as far as organizational meetings to determine agility-implementation goals, and 39% are “well underway” with rollout.  Ignoring the question about “momentum” in partial departmental implementations for a moment, I also note that 47 % say IT is agile, 36% that Project Management is, and marketing, R&D, operations/manufacturing (are they counting lean methodologies as agile?), and sales (!) are a few percentage points lower. 
Getting back to partial implementation, service/support seems to be the “new frontier.”  Surprisingly, corporate communications/PR is among the laggards even in implementation, along with accounting/finance, HR, and legal.  What I find interesting about this list is that accounting and legal are even in the conversation, indicating that people really are planning for some degree of “agile” in them.  And, of course, the CEO’s agility isn’t even in the survey – as I said 9 years ago, the CEO is likely to be the last person in the organization to “go agile.”  Long discussion, not relevant here.
How about benefits?  In the hard-nosed category, agile organizations increase revenue 37% faster and deliver 30% greater profit (an outside survey).  For the rest of benefits, there is far less concrete evidence – the CA business-agility survey apparently did not ask what business benefits respondents had already seen from their efforts.  What we can deduce is that most of the 39% of respondents who said they were “well underway” believe that they are already achieving the benefits they already understand, including most of the “fuzzy” and “synergy” benefits cited above.

Implications:  The Cat Is In The Details

At this point, I would ordinarily say to you the reader that you should move towards implementing an agile business/organization, bearing in mind that “the devil is in the details.”  Specifically, the CA surveys note that the complexity of the business and cultural/political opposition are key (and the usual) problems in implementation.  And, indeed, this would be a useful thing to know.
However, I also want to emphasize that there is a “cat” in the details of implementation:  a kind of Schrodinger’s Cat.  In quantum physics, as I understand it, different states of basic particles (e.g., exists, doesn’t exist) are entangled until we disentangle them (e.g., by “opening the box” and measuring them).  Schrodinger imagined entangled states of “cat inside the box/no cat inside the box”, so that we wouldn’t know whether Schrodinger’s Cat existed until we opened the box.  In the same way, we not only don’t know what and how much in the way of benefits we get until we examine the implementation details, we won’t know just how really agile we are until we “open the box.”
Why does that matter?  Because, as I have noted above, the really big long-term potential benefit of business agility, is, well, agility:  The ability to turn strategically, instantly, on a dime and ensure the business’ long-term existence, as well as comparative success, much more effectively.  Just because some departments seem to be delivering greater benefits right now, that doesn’t mean you have built the basic infrastructure to turn on a dime.
And so, the cat is in the details.  Please open the box by testing whether your implementation details allow you to change overall business strategies fast, and then, if there is no cat there, what should you do?
Why, change your agile-implementation strategy, of course.  Preferably fast.