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SciFly NYC // 99 // Speculating an 'Agile' Future

Weekly Events 10/21 - 10/27

An 'agile' diagram. Gears + People Mean It's Agile (even though the definition of agile vs. 'mechanistic' organizations is the exact opposite?)

Hey SciFly Readers!

This week I want to talk a little bit about Agile and the Future of Work. I started thinking about this week after reading a bunch of McKinsey articles regarding 'agile organizations' 'agile decision-making' 'agile teams' 'agile etc. etc. etc.' Now don't get me wrong, agile is... fine. It's a useful and popular management framework that stemmed from the insight that incrementally building software and testing it with people worked better than doing a whole big project and realizing it didn't work/meet needs/was outdated by the time it rolled out. Then someone else realized that you can take that very same idea and use for other types of products and services, and thereby for managing teams and even rethinking how organizations work at scale.

Like design thinking, agile stems from new needs to handle increasingly complex systems of people and technology that are changing faster and faster.

Design thinking is leveraged to try to understand what people's mental model of the world looks like, the internal image they have about how reality (people, things, computers, doors, whatever) works, and create new experiences that match those expectations most of the way, perhaps teaching a couple of new modes of interaction along the way (e.g. folders going from real folders to computer folders, turning your hand in mid-air like you would a real physical knob to trigger a similar response from the Project Soli chip on a Pixel 4).

Agile, on the other hand, is used to deploy people and resources in more adaptable and flexible arrangements in order to deal with uncertainty. Instead of having a rigid organizational hierarchy with fixed expectations for exact project deliverables that are uncovered once and then executed upon, agile tries to blend the benefits that organizational scale brings (internal processes and services that can be bargained for and given out more cheaply and efficiently) with the adaptability of having small teams focus on people, using the data they create, and design thinking/human-centered-design (insert X behavior-pscyh derived practice here) to more quickly match their new mental models, understand their motivations and anxieties, and ultimately deliver them (arguably) benefit or even impact.

Both of these practices allow groups of people, organizations, to more quickly understand what people need, how that changes, and update whatever it is they are doing to meet those new demands. In essence, both are speculative in nature. The difference however, is the scale of that speculation. As a UX designer, I speculate why people do what they do every single day, using a variety of tools and decently agile project structures to discover and unpack problems, then iteratively sketch, decide, and test solutions. However, the problems I am usually working on directly usually involve a website, an internal tool, a marketing strategy. 

But what happens when we all start to work this way? I'm not saying that this is the ideal, that everyone becomes a design-thinking/agile ninja warrior, I just mean that the nature of work itself is changing, the types of jobs that are created when data is derived from everything we do and harnessed to 'better meet our needs' (or sell us things) in a variety of ways, and even the scale of the challenges we may have to work together in new ways to face. Other jobs have become automated, or less important for a business as a way people used to do things changes (e.g. grocery check-out lines, delivery ordering, buying weekly house stuff via Amazon). So at the end of the day, what types of jobs will remain? Not what industries, or titles, but what activities people fundamentally do every day and how they do them.

I imagine that jobs and work (whether for good or for bad) will continue to become more flexible and project-based as innovation cycles continue to accelerate and new technologies and resulting social changes come faster and faster. I don't really feel the need to call the process 'agile' I just think it's collaborative and adaptive. It's about identifying what each person brings to the table and organizing them into efficient networks to affect change. The 'learn to share / work together' millenial theme song. :P

Today, this level of organization happens mostly in well, organizations. But increasingly I think we will start to see people organizing more flexibly, and in new sorts of value-sharing networks. We are already witnessing a huge rise in remote work, work from home arrangements, and digital nomads who do everything from media-marketing to customer service to blogging and move around the world as quasi-global-citizens existing solely in cyber-world when it comes to how they make a living, and a variety of new locales and experiences when they are living the rest of their life.

Essentially, the concept of work itself, who we work with, and how we work is becoming decentralized and detached from the idea of the traditional company, and more and more we are finding new networks, affiliations, and 'organizations' of people who are working on a project we care about and want to help on, whether we get paid or not. Sidebar, my biggest hope for blockchain tech is that it will eventually work more and more to solve this important problem, figuring out new ways to pay people for their ideas/innovations that break down some of our traditional notions of 'intellectual property' (that will be a long and interesting fight). (see Cory Doctorow's Walkaway and Charles Stross's Accelerando).

A couple of times this week, from the McKinsey articles, and on a paper I finally had a chance to read about Transition Design, I ran into the word 'holacracy', the which is a method of decentralized management and organizational governance through which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a holarchy (basically the relationship of atoms --> molecules --> cells etc.) of self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy. We also see this concept come up in systems like 'atomic design' or even as early as 1977 in one of my favorite books, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction when talking about the interlocking small to large patterns that can be used for designing architecture and urban planning. 

Whenever I hear words repeated over and over in different contexts, I always try to pay attention, because I've found that it points to a deeper pattern and connection, the shape of something, a feeling/mood/trend that is bubbling in different people, fields, and articles in different ways. 

This week, it's this idea of holarchy, which I've encountered several times when looking at how anything from teams and departments (to McKinseys point) to design systems, and even planning and governance. This idea that building adaptable resiliency into systems by creating self-contained and self-functional units (taking a cue from nature and biology) that can be reorganized into larger networks, or broken up and re-arranged to work on different problems. 

When I think about the future of work, this idea of holarchy is what I actually think will be the most important. Whether or not the organization of individuals happens with a formal organization, through a decentralized value-sharing systems (hence all the hype with DAOs) or even something as simple as a well-organized D&D game where every player brings something new and fun to the table, it's the ability to know what you are good at, how you work with others, and what you are passionate about bringing to the work that will matter. 

I've said before that I believe the the three most important things one can learn to do, regardless of what job they have or field they come from are to:
1. Pay Attention - read, watch, listen, learn a variety of things and watch for patterns
2. Understand What You Are Paying Attention To - use tools, frameworks for critical thinking, whatever to figure out the pattern you have observed
3. Tell people what you have observed & curate conversations/galvanize support around it - no matter the medium, tell stories and make things that share the patterns you have observed, the insights you have gained, bringing as many diverse people together as you can to help debate, refine, and improve what you may have noticed

As I read about adaptable organizations, future jobs, and new skills that people will need to have rooted in observation, communication, adaptability, and the ability to rapidly learn new things, I think these 3 core principles will become more important than ever.

The power and allure of speculation, and speculative practices is that it helps you learn about and pay attention to more and more varied new things, it provides you with new tools, frameworks, mindsets, and a history of insights from a variety of intersecting fields (aka critical thinking and research in whatever way works best for you and the situation), and most importantly, helps you learn to tell rich stories about the implications of the patterns you have observed, both to others with a similar passion/vocabulary who can help bend and shape your ideas until they are richer, and to those who may have never noticed/thought about this particular pattern, and are now aware and hopefully energized to take action in some way.

At the end of the day, yes, agile is important. But it is only as important as the larger and more subtle force that has led to everyone from management consulting firms, to software engineers, to nonprofits to realize it's potential, the fundamental need to organize people and resources in new ways to meet larger challenges, and to support and prepare them so that they have the skills, mindsets, and technologies they need to respond to an uncertain and rapidly changing world.

To me, the more interesting speculation is what future arrangements of people we will see start to emerge. What types of arrangements will work the best in response to different problems: 'organizations' 'companies' 'DAOs' 'networks', worker-owned cooperatives, for-hire freelancers, AI-human 'centaurs'?

What types of skills will people need to thrive in this new world, and how will the changing nature of what work even means affect their livelihoods, conceptions of themselves/what they do, and the winners and losers in new economic realities?

For this reason, I think agile is a great place to start, and I'm happy that it has caught on beyond software development, but I think it is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger transformation and reconceptualization about what work really is in a future where boundaries between work/play/life break down more and more. So for now, as much as I like reading articles and strategies for becoming more flexible, and future-ready as an employee and person, I'll seek my guidance and inspiration for what that might really look like, and more importantly, how it might feel, where I always do, in the pages of a new scifi novel.

Thanks for listening and what do you think about 'agile'?

Read on for this week's great speculative events!

"The future is here, now let's distribute it." 

Doc Martens

SciFly is a design studio dedicated to leveraging speculative design and science fiction to imagine and prototype alternative futures enabled by today's emerging technology.


Monday | 10/21

Tuesday | 10/22

Wednesday | 10/23

Thursday | 10/24

Friday | 10/25

Saturday | 10/26

Sunday | 10/27

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

Here is a quick snapshot of my favorite books, podcasts, and articles this week.

Can the Data Poor Survive?
by Shelly Palmer

After Deaths, Amazon Lands on List of Most Dangerous Employers
by Lindsey J. Smith

The Latest Urban Trend: Banning Cars on City Streets
by Kristin Houser

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