The hijacking of ancient ideas

July 3, 2024

‘What do you think?’ shouted Razumihin, louder than ever, ‘You think I am attacking [my uncle, others] for talking nonsense? Not a bit! I like them to talk nonsense. That’s man’s one privilege over all creation. Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen.’ – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment [i]

There is a widespread notion in much of today’s discourse that sometimes, we must fail and adapt to make progress. It appears in popular articles, frameworks and books from ‘The Lean Startup’ (“if you cannot fail, you cannot learn”) to pretty much anything with ‘agile’ or similar in its title. The 2020 Scrum guide for instance states: ‘If any aspects of a process deviate outside acceptable limits or if the resulting product is unacceptable, the process being applied or the materials being produced must be adjusted. The adjustment must be made as soon as possible to minimize further deviation.’[ii]

Got it. Some attempts will not work, others only in a limited way, so by cycling ideas and tests we will reach some kind of result – even if only to know we shouldn’t do it again. And we have known that for a very long time indeed.

The opening quote from Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece was published over 150 years ago in 1866. Back a further 600 years, Roger Bacon (1220–1292), the scholar, philosopher and friar, is known from his advancement of empirical scientific methods in Europe. Particularly his influence on the importance of experimentation over reasoning alone, such that in Opus Majus he writes, ‘There are numerous beliefs commonly held in the absence of experiment, and wholly false … The natural philosopher forms a judgement on these things: the experimenter proceeds to test the judgement.’[iii] And further still? 1,500 years before Bacon, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) used recognisably empirical thinking in his emphasis on observation and reasoning (which was included in his tutelage of Alexander the Great). Or more than 1,000 years before that, the Ancient Egyptian ‘Edwin Smith papyrus’ (c. 1600 BCE) that included a written description of a medical process, covering examination to diagnosis, treatment to prognosis.

Clearly then, ‘empiricism’ as something to help develop and test our theories is documented to be at least 3,500 years old. It has been with us pretty much for as long as we’ve been writing things down.


So, why the history lesson?

Sometime last week I heard a description (and rallying cry) that ‘business agility should be our defacto way of thinking for business.’ Moreover, that to make business agility work, it should be accompanied by certain styles of leadership, distributions of power and associated structures and culture. More forthrightly from this perspective, organisations that have things like ‘too much work in progress’ or ‘messy cultures’ were seen as needing to be fixed to succeed. Ignoring that ‘fixed’ tends to mean something involuntary at the vets, there are two points in this that are at least misleading, if not nefarious.

First, I absolutely believe that concepts associated with agility, and even the more abstract ‘business agility’ are valuable tools that we can contextually use in our organisations. For example, it makes no sense to write plans and set strategies for things that are subject to change, especially if there’s a good chance that we could be wrong anyway. But to suggest that we can prescribe a specific fix in the form of a packaged, silver-bullet solution, before we even meet a company and find out anything about them, is outrageous.

Sure, with less work in progress or shorter cycle times a company might steal an advantage over the competition, but nothing is guaranteed. Worse, a company feeling that they must implement radical delivery, finance or HR practice because they heard that it’s the only way to succeed could just as likely damage their organisation as help it. Indeed, the only guaranteed outcome of implementing business agility – just like any other process or structural change – is an initial opportunity cost. Time and investment will be spent in design, communication, administration, teaching, certification (!!), coaching, reskilling, consequential hiring, and all while a good number of people keep their heads down until someone works out what the hell is going on since the old stuff got thrown out.

Second, that a framework seeks to own certain ideas, or implies that they are unique to that way of working needs addressing. As above, learning from failure wasn’t invented last Wednesday by a sharp-suited consultant or a west-coast-Californian tech-bro; we have done it for thousands of years. And that is true of so much more of what is discussed as the current “right way.” Here are a few more examples:

Idea: Some kind of central vision to help coordination

“The wise leader seeks to run their organization as one piece and with one spirit.” Sun Tzu (c. 500 BCE), paraphrased by Tom Butler-Bowdon.[iv]

Idea: Engagement with purpose is a good thing

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”  Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds.” Patanjali (c. 500 – 200 BCE)

Idea: Limit work in progress

“Better a little which is well done, than a great deal imperfectly.” Plato (427 – 348 BCE)

Idea: Care about people

“Wise subjects who would employ their subjects in great endeavours, should first establish harmony among them.” Wu Tzu (c. 500 BCE)

“By humane treatment we obtain obedience; authority brings uniformity. Thus we obtain victory.” Sun Tzu (c. 500 BCE)

“The good general is the lord of the people’s lives, the guardian of the country’s welfare.” Sun Tzu (c. 500 BCE)

Idea: Servant leadership

“He who is not a good servant will not be a good master.” Plato (427 – 348 BCE)


So, by all means check out a framework’s proposal, chat to a consultant (even me!) or carry out a maturity assessment for inspiration but remember you don’t have to swallow it whole. Extremely few component ideas are new and crucially, even if they don’t exist in your business today – let alone in a fixed combination – it does not mean that they should. More practically, everyone has full license to use any of them in any combination they wish in the pursuit of their own goals.

In other words:

  • You do not have to be an ‘agile company’ to use time-boxes, Kanban boards, have fast feedback loops or prioritise effective customer relationships.
  • You do not have to be a servant leader to support the wellbeing and the importance of developing capabilities of your teams.
  • You do not need to flatten your entire organisation to increase decision autonomy and collaboration.
  • You are not wrong if you use some DevOps practices alongside COBIT and ITIL to meet your aims.
  • You do not need to be ‘fixed’ because someone thinks your budget cycle is too long or ‘non-agile.’
  • And so on…

None of this is mandatory, and nor do we know for certain if it will help. Thus, as someone recently said to me, I invite you to focus on “making your company the best version of itself, not a second-best copy of someone else’s.”

[i] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866).

[ii] Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, ‘The Scrum Guide’, Scrum.org, November 2020, https://scrumguides.org/docs/scrumguide/v2020/2020-Scrum-Guide-US.pdf. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Link to license: https://scrumguides.org/docs/scrumguide/v2020/2020-Scrum-Guide-US.pdf.

[iii] Roger Bacon, Opus Majus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), https://archive.org/details/opusmajusofroger01baco, 168.

[iv] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (Chichester: Capstone, 2010)