Sunday, October 13, 2013

Apple Donut Headquarters - Agile, or Anachronistic?

Everyone reading this post has no doubt heard about Apple's new headquarters, under construction:

From an agile perspective, the Apple Donut seems very "agile":
It promotes lots of collaboration, because it is only four stories (no getting on a elevator to go see someone) and it encourages one to walk past other teams on the way to a meeting or one's primary work area.

But on the other hand, it seems to me like the logical conclusion of 20th century industrial age thinking, in which masses of people travel to a central location every day, work intensely for a hierarchical organization, and then travel back at the end of the day - kind of like Metropolis ( A glance at the photo (see link above) of the planned Apple headquarters shows the massive highway leading underground to the parking area - not too unlike the river of people flowing in and out of Metropolis every day! I can almost hear the factory siren signaling the start of work. And as the San Francisco Mercury News put it, the new headquarters "promises to bring a world-class real-estate project - along with a lot of traffic congestion - to the heart of Silicon Valley." I don't know about you, but it takes a pretty high incentive for me to suffer an unpleasant grid-locked commute every day.

To be fair, the elite of Metropolis did not espouse agile principles: the movie depicts no signs of collaboration, but rather only hierarchical control with pre-defined jobs.

But is it really that different?

No matter, because a much more pertinent question is, Is Apple a model for other organizations? Should we be trying to learn from it, to inform our guidance of our clients, for how to structure their organizations?

I contend that the answer is usually no, and in the cases where the answer is no, it is emphatically no.

The reason is that most companies are not like Apple: most companies are not as "cool" as Apple, and don't have an inspiring mission the way that Apple, Google, and some of the other most glamorous tech companies have. Most companies - and most IT work in most companies - is relatively hum-drum, and such companies cannot attract the best and brightest as a mere result of their mission or their "cool factor". Most companies have to attract IT workers based on other traits - including working conditions and compensation. In other words, if getting in and out of the workplace every day is a miserable experience, consuming two hours of one's day in a horrible commute, then the organization had better (1) offer very high compensation, (2) be very "cool" to work for, or (3) expect to obtain only the least qualified talent, because the best talent will choose opportunities that offer either #1 or #2.

But what is the alternative? Apple can get away with a four story Tower Of Babel absurdity, because it is so "cool". But what about the countless other companies? What is the right kind of agile workplace for them?

We have to be careful here, because agile principles emphasize certain things like face-to-face conversation and working together in real time, and it is easy to take those things to their logically absurd conclusion and arrive at the Apple headquarters. But what is the right way to scale those agile principles? Does it mean forcing every conversation to be face-to-face? Every meeting to be in-person? Every collaboration to be real time?

Of course, the answer is no. In fact, global trends are the reverse. In our increasingly global economy, we see more and more workers who are needed in many geographically separated places on the same day, because their skills are move valuable than the value of proximity. We also see an inexorable trend toward flexible working patterns. Two income households and removal of the barriers preventing more flexibility - combined with the increasingly global nature of work - are making this come about. In the IT world, early agile has inserted a small hickup in this trend, by sending IT people back to the office for core hours to be on teams, but the overall trend is there. Now that agile has matured, and the focus is on continuous delivery, teams are discovering that they need to be in continual contact with diverse stakeholders in other parts of the organization - people who cannot be physically present - and it is often the case that the business stakeholders are in other parts of the country.

Early visionaries such as Alvin Toffler were not wrong on this: the trend is toward less commuting, more flexibility, a return to the organization of populations around communities rather than commuting corridors, and the substitution of electronic collaboration for physical presence. Commuting was a 20th century anomaly.

So the question is not whether agile values are right - they are - but rather, how does one achieve agile when the trend is toward more work flexibility, more time zones, and workers who are needed in many places at once - and in and environment in which the best workers can get jobs that give them the flexibility that they need?

That is the real question for agile. And Apple's new headquarters does not answer that question.

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