White elephants or white space?

Public sector organisations have a tendency to be elephantine. I suggested a few days ago that this was at least in part as a result of their size and age, rather than necessarily because being elephantine was limited to the public sector. In a comment on that post, Rik Barker challenged that view:

I’ve been involved in delivering agile software projects to organisations across multiple sectors; my experience has been that the number of stakeholders ‘with skin in the game’ in a public sector project is exponentially higher than in any other sector. Each one of those stakeholders requires some degree of convincing of some variation of the same point: That agile does not equal risk.
Once engaged, the process wins converts extremely quickly and –to pick up your analogy –the friction is reduced, the cogs turn and the elephant sprints. But the journey of getting to that point is a very rocky road to navigate –especially on an elephant.

That chimes with a fascinating article by Adrian Hartung in Forbes about why Facebook has so comprehensively overtaken MySpace. Essentially the argument is that Facebook managed to retain flexibility and responsiveness while MySpace suffocated under more conventional “grown up” management techniques:

Underlying all those tactics was a very simple management mistake News Corp made. News Corp tried to guide MySpace, to add planning, and to use “professional management” to determine the business’s future. That was fatally flawed when competing with Facebook which was managed in White Space, letting the marketplace decide where the business should go.

That in turn has prompted Ross Pruden to reflect on innovation and the concept of White Space:

When managing innovation, including operating in high growth markets, nothing works better than White Space. Giving dedicated people permission to do whatever it takes, and resources, then holding their feet to the fire to demonstrate performance. Letting dedicated people learn from their successes, and failures, and move fast to keep the business in the fast moving water. There is no manager, leader or management team that can predict, plan and execute as well as a team that has its ears close to the market, and the flexibility to react quickly, willing to make mistakes (and learn from them even faster) without bias for a predetermined plan.

White Space, as it is used here, is an interesting but slightly blurred concept. Partly it is being used to suggest space created or protected within which innovation can happen, though that space isn’t a skunkworks or anything quite like it, because it isn’t an adjunct to the company, it is the company. But partly is is being used to suggest something less defined and more creative. In a Harvard Business Review article from 2001 (and much of it behind a paywall), which is where this usage seems to originate, Mark Maletz and Nitin Nohria observe that:

Whitespace exists in all companies, and enterprising people are everywhere testing the waters with unofficial efforts to boost the bottom line. The managers who operate in these uncharted seas are often the ones most successful at driving innovation, incubating new businesses, and finding new markets.

So we seem to be back to a kind of agile, externally stimulated sense of constant change which at first blush is very different from the concept of agility applied to software development.  And yet looking again at the Agile Manifesto, maybe the meanings are not so very different after all.  Taking this back to Facebook, Pruden points out that:

At the heart of Facebook’s success is Zuckerberg’s willingness to “destroy” Facebook to make it better and more competitive. Facebook was once the entrant, and now it is the incumbent and will stay the incumbent for as long as Zuckerberg retains the attitude of an entrant. Incumbents face a choice of abandoning much of their expensive infrastructure to adapt to a changing market, whereas entrants face no such choice –quite the opposite, entrants have nothing to lose. They can try anything.

And that may seem to take us back to where we came in. Most of us in large organisations or public-sector organisations, still less in large, public-sector organisations, can’t easily retain the attitude of an entrant, because we don’t have it in the first place. I don’t think it follows that we have to give up on the quest for greater agility. Though it probably does follow that we won’t become billionaires in the attempt.