Hurricane Irma – A powerful lesson in agility

As a teacher of agility and Agile processes, I am always looking for real life examples learners can relate to.   Often when I explain the Agile processes and frameworks to anyone who is new to them, I am asked – “But isn’t that just common sense?”  My answer is “Yes, but unfortunately common sense in not always common practice in our organizations.”

One powerful example of agility I share with students is our recent experience of hurricane Irma.  While there are many lessons to be learned from the 2017 hurricane season, the one most powerful and relevant to our organizations is how we plan and respond to complexity and uncertainty.

Figure 1

September 6, 2017, figure 1, shows the probable path of hurricane Irma.  The monstrous, category 5 storm was making a beeline for South Florida.  The weather forecasters were issuing dire warnings of devastating wind speeds and storm surges of historic proportions for Florida’s east coast.  Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the Florida Keys and all coastal areas.  A heightening sense of anxiety and a desperate urgency for preparedness could be felt all across South Florida.  There was no negotiating the deadline.  The hurricane would make landfall in four days!  There was serious work to be done, important decisions to be made and no time to waste.

What if at that point we turned off the TV and tuned out of the news so we could take all the information we had to create the perfect plan for the next four days, divide up the work to get it all done in time, and commit to staying focused to executing on that plan?  Wouldn’t we have been in for a big surprise four days later when the storm headed in a new direction?

Figure 2, shows the updated forecast from September 10, 2017.  By not staying tuned to the changing events, those on Florida’s

Figure 2

east coast would have concluded that the category 5 storm was not such a big deal after all, while those on the west coast would have been caught completely unprepared.  However, we did not tune out to focus on executing our plan.   We tuned in regularly to the NHC (National Hurricane Center) and news updates at least every 3 hours and stayed diligently aware. While some who decided early and evacuated to other parts of Florida and beyond found themselves in a predicament, we all re-evaluated, adjusted and fine-tuned our plan based on what we learned as the cone of uncertainty narrowed and new realities emerged.

Hurricane Irma presented South Florida with a real-life complex situation to rival no other and we used common sense and responded with agility – no process or framework required.

So why don’t we apply this same thinking to the work we do in our organizations?

With the accelerated change and increasing complexity, why do we continue to believe we can accurately predict the future?  Why do we convince ourselves that if we just spent enough time planning up front, it will all work out perfectly?  Why do risk finalizing decisions too early when there is more to be discovered?

Why do we not make it common practice to check in regularly and adjust our plan based on emerging realities?  Scrum, Kanban, XP and similar non-prescriptive, lightweight Agile frameworks and methods encourage us to stop and think, inspect and adapt, and make ‘common sense’, common practice for the world of work – isn’t it about time?

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