Do you enjoy laughing at meaningless business jargon as much as I do? Then I’m sure you too are a fan of bullshit bingo. It is fascinating how certain (empty) words suddenly become fashionable in the boardroom and then spread across businesses like wildfire. But there are exceptions to the rule. Some of these words are not only popular but actually also meaningful. And at the very top of that list is ‘Agile’.
Most decision-making is everything but agile
The original Agile Manifesto was published by a group of software developers in 2001. Software development was and is less hierarchical, bureaucratic, and bound by processes than a traditional business. And the lessons are certainly more widely applicable. But how many people who constantly drop references to agile decision-making really practice it? Or even understand what it actually means? When it comes down to it, decisions are very often still made in an old-fashioned way, even in many so-called tech companies. Decision-making is still top-down, based on limited information, ad hoc, and biased by politics.
Agile has no place in Bullshit Bingo
In crisis situations, however, that way of working simply is not possible. Even some governments are moving to agile ways of thinking and working. Agile decision-making is no longer a fashionable buzzword, but a necessity. This is certainly the case with the COVID-19 crisis, for three main reasons:
- First, the sheer pace at which organizations need to take, assess, and revise their decisions is so fast that there is no time for politics to get in the way. Decision-making has to be iterative.
- Secondly, the situation is so complex that it’s necessary to cooperate with experts from many different fields, from epidemiology to emergency medical care to behavioral psychology and lawmakers. Decision-making has to be collaborative.
- And thirdly, it’s necessary to get buy-in from everyone. This (should even) mean being open with the political opposition in order to pass necessary legislation as well as with the wider society, so they comply with often drastic measures. Decision-making has to be transparent.
“Good enough” really is good enough
Agile decision-making is powerful because it is iterative, collaborative, and transparent. Of course, agile decision-making is no panacea. One key idea associated with agile thinking is that ’good enough’ right now is better than perfection at some unspecified point in the future. Often, it’s necessary to act on imperfect information and adapt as the situation unfolds. When the stakes are as high as they are with the pandemic, that’s an uncomfortable truth. Mistakes will cost lives. But putting off decisions, or simply following a consensus established elsewhere, can be an even costlier mistake. It’s a fallacy to imagine there is a risk-free approach to decision-making, let alone to decision-making in a crisis.
Agile decision making mitigates our cognitive biases
Making important decisions is never easy, especially under the pressure of time and with high levels of uncertainty. The result is that we tend to rely on our gut feeling and intuition to reduce our mental discomfort. And that sometimes means thinking (and deciding) irrationally. The good news is that, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely puts it, we are ‘predictably’ irrational. He and his colleagues have identified many ‘shortcuts’ our brains use (aka cognitive biases) that influence our perceptions and prevent us from even seeing that better choices are available.
Applying agile decision-making principles mitigates many of these shortcuts and inherent problems with making hard decisions. Because agile decision-making is iterative, it means we can’t dodge the hard emotional part of decision-making by simply making one and moving on. We have to keep reviewing and revising. Because it is collaborative, it means our individual biases are blended together and likely to be canceled out or compensated for. And because it is transparent, it fosters greater rationality as others have the opportunity to spot the cognitive biases in our thinking and contribute their own perspective.
Agility’s time has come
Iterative, collaborative, transparent. These are not just buzzwords, and agile is not just empty business-speak. At a time of a pandemic, they could be the difference between life and death. And in ‘normal life’, whether we’re talking about small or large teams, whether we’re talking about tech companies or national governments, the bottom line is that agile teams make better decisions.
For these reasons, agile decision-making, like distributed leadership, is an idea whose time has come. So let’s remove ‘agile’ from our bullshit bingo cards and let’s commit to iterative, collaborative, and transparent decision-making. Here’s to better decisions in our families, in our organizations and in our society!