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Are Promises Agile?

What tools do we have for understanding the dynamics of an organization? For years now, leadership has been obsessed with agile, and companies often spend millions on so-called “agile transformations.” It’s certainly not the only game in town, but its commercialization has exceeded the others many times over. As a commercial enterprise, some of what falls under the aegis of Agile can be regarded with suspicion. Trademarks fly and so-called best practices rain from fully authorized heavens.

A very different kind of tool, less prescriptive and more analytical, has also come out of Information Science — actually, distributed computing. It’s called Promise Theory (PT), and although it wasn’t designed as a management framework, it’s surprisingly simple formulations about cooperation turn out to reveal deep knowledge. What applies to the scaling of computer systems also applies to the scaling of human processes. In fact, taking it a step further, it suggests that we can understand human-technology cooperation as a kind of engineering discipline. If that gets your imagination going, then stay tuned.

There’s no shortage of topics we could discuss with the help of Promise Theory, but we have to start somewhere…

“Inward or outward?”

PT emphasizes that promises need to foster ongoing relationships, in which promises are seen to be kept. This is how we build trust. Consider the following statement that was dropped recently on social media:

“Most CEOs have a closer relationship with their customers than with their team. They know where their money comes from!”

“Most middle managers and workers are focused on their own work environment. They are self-obsessed, navel-gazing, even narcissistic!”

These sweeping accusations may hold some truth, and might help to explain some of the dysfunctions of organizational thinking. Where do practices like scrum, standup, sprint, etc fit into these diametric points of view? An effective role of leaders is to bring cohesion to an organizational hierarchy. If people look inward, we neglect the all important source of survival. If people look only outward, they might topple the house of cards they are climbing on in their haste to reach that source.


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