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PMI October Event Summary – Unlearn Agile



Caitlyn Liu
Project Performance International

In October, I was given the opportunity to attend one of the monthly events run by the Project Management Institute’s Melbourne Chapter. The event, which was themed ‘Unlearn Agile’, offered a refreshing viewpoint on the widespread application of Agile in today’s organisations. Presented in an interesting yet insightful way, the speakers sounded the alarm on the dangers of blindly implementing the Agile Transformation without a fundamental understanding of what it is really about.
The presenters began with an introduction to the concept of unlearning. The Roman Empire, whose people would give up their own practices as soon as they found better ones, is used as an example to illustrate that unlearning is from ancient wisdom. The presenters argue that the cycle of unlearn, relearn and breakthrough should be followed regularly. As the amount of knowledge in the world grows larger, some inevitably become obsolete. Consequently, true understanding not only requires learning, but also requires discarding what is no longer relevant.
Why is unlearning so important now? The presenters assert that we live in a rapidly changing world in which disengagement in the workforce has grown year by year (85% according to a global study) as the digital wave brings about breakthroughs in areas such as AI, big data, quantum computing and the Internet of Things. These changes will reform the landscape of the workforce as now know it; this requires our practices to adapt accordingly.

Before diving into the reasons to unlearn Agile, the presenters explained how Agile rose to the religious status it now enjoys through the mouths of different stakeholders. The evangelist, who extols the cultural impact of Agile; the senior executive, who values the speed of delivery, customer satisfaction and reduced costs it guarantees; the technologist, who simply likes the freedom it gives him to do what he wants; the project manager, who regards Agile as something embedded in the methodology of project delivery that had been practiced long before the Manifesto brought it into the awareness of the wider public.

These words of compliments and faith starkly contrast with empirical evidence which exposed that 96% of Agile transformations failed to adapt to changing market conditions. If the evolution of Agile is compared to a tree, then its root is the Manifesto. Over the years Agile has branched out enormously into areas and sectors far beyond, adopting new layers of meaning and fresh terminologies which extend too far from its core. When an organisation tries to implement the varying versions of Agile with its systems, problems arise because convoluted processes and terminologies take away from the fundamentals of what Agile is about – being collaborative, deliver, reflect and improve.

Going forward, the presenters advised us that the solution is not to throw away Agile, but to try not to get lost in the tangled mess that has evolved from it and instead to make sure that the fundamentals are right – the Agile mindset. The big question to consider is what is fit for purpose now, which helps in deciding what old beliefs to let go of, and more importantly, what remains relevant.

Following the presentation, an interesting point was raised by an audience member that in its early stages Agile was created as a methodology for product development, contrasting to the all-encompassing solution that it is regarded as now.

In answering another question from the audience, the presenters emphasised the importance of involving senior leadership in Agile transformations. Their viewpoint is that with the wrong KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) or the wrong reward system, it is nearly impossible to implement Agile effectively.


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