January 6, 2015

Believe Me, I’m Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Paesaggio di città di new york con grattacieli

Research of agile process improvement honours the management gurus of the 50s and 60s

The phrase ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ appears in bold green lettering every time I do any ‘proper’ research. Google has turned Isaac Newton’s 17th century quip into friendly advice on its academic search page.

The research is towards a better understanding of what agile process improvement actually means. AJ, Chris and I devised the phrase more than a year ago to describe our particular blend of consulting competencies. Since then, I’m delighted to see popular agile blogger Ben Linders has added it to his keywords as well.

What’s caught my attention is the number of management gurus that were born in the earliest years of the 20th century, who seem to be 100 years ahead of their time. In defining management practice that would be relevant to a modern agile organisation, advice from the fifties and sixties often hits the ‘nail on the head’.

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion

Northcote C Parkinson

Everyone knows Parkinson was right when he wrote his law gently poking fun at bureaucracy, but Drucker (objectives), Deming (plan-do-check-act), Ishikawa (total quality), Maslow (motivation), Herzberg (hygiene), and Greenleaf (servant-leader) could easily have been writing about agile management and agile process improvement.

Management at Scale

Businesses were growing from big to massive from the 1950s. Management at scale was the new frontier where naivety, simplicity and integrity met efficiency and automation. The corporate machine had started and nothing would ever be the same again.
These great men of science (women and artists appear later) set-out many of the frameworks that developed into Agile, Lean, Six Sigma, Quality Improvement and so on. History, however, has shown us that very few have been able to make that management model work.

As organisations seek to become more agile, and including women and artists is a good start, then perhaps we will be able to get better value from the wisdom we have inherited.

Or was Newton Joking?

Newton wrote the ‘shoulders of giants’ phrase in a letter to Robert Hooke, a contemporary and a professional rival. Hooke was supposed to be rather sensitive about his appearance, especially his height, which was not as great as his stature, nor was he as tall as Newton.

A generous interpretation of Newton’s comment is that he too had ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’ in order to see farther. But who knows what he really meant?

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