Agile is fragile. Agile management can make creative projects successful. Overwhelming data shows agile practices improve project success rates, but companies derail their own (expensive) agile efforts frequently. It turns out mindlessness is common, and mindlessness kills agile.
Pioneering agile powerhouses Yahoo, MySpace, Citrix, and others built great Scrum implementations (the “cost reduction side of agile”), gaining more rapid releases and growing market share. But then…they shrank while competitors grew. Why?
Growth and decline
Yahoo reached a market capitalization of $125 billion, with opportunities along the way to buy Google at $1 billion and $5 billion, only to lose 96% of its value and get acquired by Verizon for $4.48 billion (Mathur 2021).
MySpace grew exponentially as a startup. News Corp had bought it for $580 million in 2005. Its marketshare grew to more than 50% of the social media market, but Facebook lapped it in 2008. In 2021, MySpace was referenced by 0.2% of web pages that reference any social media platform (Hendelmann 2021). MySpace is still there, but barely.
Citrix acquired ExpertCity for $225 million in 2003 and renamed it Citrix Online. But Citrix Online made some questionable acquisitions, ultimately itself to be acquired by once-tiny competitor Logmein. Zoom now dominates this market at 50%, with Logmein at 3% (Sandler 2021). Engineering is now reportedly offshore.
Value and productivity unappreciated
Two related problems seem to have led to these declines:
- a failure to pair the value-side of agile, namely Lean Startup, with the cost-reduction and high release rate of Scrum
- a failure to retain agile coaches that helped sustain high productivity
Yahoo had an early agile organization that fueled a lot of great features. But Yahoo made a series of terrible product mistakes. The history of Yahoo and agile is fraught. In conversations with agile coaches, Yahoo executives repeatedly hired agile coaches, got great gains in release rate, then fired agile coaches in reorgs. Through conversations with colleagues, this cycle seems to have happened at least five times.
MySpace had metric-driven, high-performance Scrum teams (Downey 2009). After the acquisition and a reorganization, product managers at MySpace failed to respond to user feature demands. Agile coaches left the organization after this reorg. Bugs increased and features continued to languish.
Citrix Online had one of the earliest large implementations of [email protected] (Greening 2010), which improved its market share (Greening 2013). Its centralized product management and user-experience departments emphasized experimentation. However, a reorg divided its deeply inter-related products into different pre-set budgets (i.e., planning far ahead: not agile), and eliminated the [email protected] management process. An engineering VP and a few agile coaches left the company. Some engineering projects became invisible, and chewed up lots of capital. Features languished.
Poor direction = mindlessness
When companies fail to experimentally pursue customer value, Scrum doesn’t contribute as much.
Few executives (and surprisingly few agile coaches) understand the value of Lean Startup and its relationship to Scrum. You can have a high-powered jet in your plane (Scrum), but if you point your aircraft at the ground (mindless product management), you won’t go anywhere. I can’t tell you how many Scrum teams I’ve experienced where the product manager (sometimes called the “Product Owner”) sets the product direction based on development team enthusiasm. But development teams don’t have time for unruly customers and their demands, so they rarely know what customers want.
Team members do not pay for the product. Instead, the customers who buy the product pay for the team members, and for the product manager.
Scrum is a cost-reducing experimental framework. Team members use Scrum to understand what activities help them build features faster (i.e., at lower cost), and how to produce fewer defects (i.e., reducing rework cost). Value decision-making in Scrum is held entirely by the Product Owner.
Lean Startup is a value-seeking experimental framework. Product managers use Lean Startup to experiment with the market, to determine what features resonate with customers, what customers will pay for, what features are interfering with customer goals, and what will make the company successful.
Mindfulness and agile
When we’re in the midst of an organizational or personal crisis, it’s often caused by our own previous inattention. We feel emotions: anxiety, fear, anger. The emotions always happen, but how we react to those emotions determines whether we are mindful. Without mindfulness, we react by blaming others, feeling guilty, fighting, or running away. That’s called “reactivity,” shorthand for “acting out emotions.”
There are two forms of “mindlessness” described above. The first is inattention. Organizations that don’t test their market assumptions are not paying attention. The second is reactivity. Organizations that respond to crises by blaming the first things things that come to mind (admittedly, often agile coaches or organizational structure) are reactive.
People suffer due to inattention, and their own subsequent reactivity. Mindfulness practices (the opposite of mindless ones) originated with Buddhism to solve this problem. Mindfulness practices increase attention and reduce reactivity. They are actively studied by psychologists and neuroscientists, because they lead to much better outcomes, and happier people.
Mindfulness expands our awareness and our options. Compassion helps us consider the limitations, capabilities, and perceptions of other people. Self-regulation helps us slow down and de-automate the connection between emotion and action (we show anger less frequently, for example). Appreciating interdependence helps us understand how others might hinder or contribute. We can show more gratitude, even when people are driving us crazy. Finally, self-compassion (reducing guilt, depression, and other self-destructive emotions) helps us operate with lower anxiety in high-pressure situations.
Mindfulness practitioners lead some great companies. Marc Benioff leads Salesforce.com. Salesforce was one of the earliest (2006), largest implementors of Scrum (Babinet 2008). Scrum has been in use there for over 15 years. Benioff describes the value of meditation in the May 25, 2021 episode of What I’ve Learned, with Arianna Huffington.
Mirela and I wanted to explore the combination of mindfulness and agility, to help make agile more sustainable. The podcast talks about agile and mindfulness, applied to people and teams.
We’ll discuss why mindfulness practitioners should study agile in a later newsletter.
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Mathur S (2021) 4 Biggest Reasons Why Yahoo! Failed. Feedough. Retrieved (May 21, 2022), https://www.feedough.com/why-yahoo-failed/.
Benefield G (2008) Rolling Out Agile in a Large Enterprise, in 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Waikoloa, Big Island, Hawaii, 2008 pp. 461-461, doi: 10.1109/HICSS.2008.382.
Sutherland J, Downey S, Granvik B (2009) Shock Therapy: A Bootstrap for Hyper-Productive Scrum. 2009 Agile Conference. 69–73.
Hendelmann V (2021) What Happened To Myspace? Why Did It Fail?. https://productmint.com/what-happened-to-myspace/
Greening DR (2010) Enterprise Scrum: Scaling Scrum to the Executive Level. presented at the Proceedings of the 43rd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Honolulu, 2010. doi: 10.1109/HICSS.2010.186.
Greening D (2013), “Release Duration and Enterprise Agility,” in 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Wailea, Maui, HI USA, 2013 pp. 4835-4841. https://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/HICSS.2013.463
Sadler M (2021) 84 Video Conferencing Statistics for the 2021 Market. TrustRadius Blog. Retrieved (May 21, 2022), https://www.trustradius.com/vendor-blog/web-conferencing-statistics-trends.
Babinet, E., & Ramanathan, R. (2008). Dependency Management in a Large Agile Environment. Agile 2008 Conference, 401–406. https://doi.org/10.1109/Agile.2008.58
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