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Agile and OODA

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Agile is OODA applied to application development. OODA only works when the organization is agile.

By Bob Lewis | February 29, 2016
Topics: App Dev Methodologies, Industry Commentary, Metrics, Organizational Effectiveness, Process Management and Improvement, Project Management, Strategy and Tactics | 3 Comments »

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Why have Agile methodologies (including DevOps, which adds agile deployment to Agile development) made such inroads in IT? Why is OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) so important for business strategists?

Agile/DevOps is OODA applied to application development; OODA depends on business agility, applying many of its core concepts to external threats and opportunities.

It starts with the gunnery problem. In case you aren’t familiar with it …

You’re shipboard. You man an anti-aircraft gun. The shells you fire have an initial muzzle velocity of around 2,500 feet per second, decelerating due to gravity as they ascend toward the aircraft you’re shooting at.

The aircraft is a bomber. It flies at something less than 1,000 feet per second. Being a math whiz you can project exactly where the bomber will be when your shell reaches its altitude, allowing you to aim at the exact spot in the bomber’s trajectory where your shell and the bomber would attempt to occupy the same space at the same time.

But, the bomber is piloted by someone who, all things considered, would prefer that their aircraft’s trajectory and that of your shell don’t intersect, and so they don’t just fly in a straight line.

In application development terms, by the time your shell reaches the target’s altitude, the requirements will have changed.

Why Agile? So IT can deliver the software needed to support business changes (where you aim) in time for the planned change to still be relevant to the business’s new situation (before changes in the bomber’s flight path make your aim wrong).

Why OODA? Same answer: The attacking plane is a competitor, or the overall marketplace, or some important change in circumstances that will affect your business.

Your planned actions have to still be relevant when they “reach the attacker’s altitude” … when the changes you anticipate become real, recognizing that the more time that elapses the less predictable the future (the bomber’s position) is.

See, there’s a reason we’ve settled on the term “Agile” instead of “Fast,” which is that depending on what you mean by “fast,” waterfall is much faster than Agile, as was pointed out a few months ago in this space. It’s faster in that, assuming you have a useful way to measure software functionality, waterfall generally delivers more of it in a unit of time than Agile or DevOps.

But, waterfall delivers it all at the end of a long trajectory, during which business circumstances might change and change again. Waterfall design and development have a lot in common with a gunner shooting a slow, heavy shell that packs a lot of explosives at the spot a bomber would be in were it to continue flying in a straight line.

It’s a big bang that misses the target: Waterfall’s fixed requirements and specifications and need to develop and deliver the whole system in one piece conspire to deliver results that are largely irrelevant when delivered.

Pushing the analogy to the limits, Agile, and even more so DevOps, is less like a shell than a surface-to-air missile. They’re able to track changes to the target’s trajectory and adjust course accordingly.

Waterfall still has its adherents. Their near-universal explanation of waterfall’s high failure rate is that business people “don’t know what they want,” which presupposes there’s a way for them to know the answer to the question, “What do you want the software to do?”

Someone once studied people who design and build their own houses. Turns out, they’re rarely satisfied with the first one they live in. Generally, they aren’t satisfied with their second try, either.

If it takes three tries to design the house you want, keeping in mind that living in a house isn’t exactly terra incognita for most people, expecting a business manager to know in advance exactly how a piece of software should behave is several percentage points less than realistic.

And that’s starting with the false assumption that “What do you want the software to do?” is the right question to ask. It isn’t. A far better question is, “How do you want to run your part of the business differently and better?”

Even when IT asks the right question, the fundamental difference between the past and the future still intervenes. Presumably you know what this difference is: You can, in principle, get a pretty good handle on what’s already happened.

The future isn’t like that.


3 Responses to “Agile and OODA”

  1. Bob Harris` says:

    Nicely said. You’re really firing on all cylinders.

  2. Jim Hunt says:

    Great article – and spot on. There’s a great animation / presentation on this by Dan Pink that’s well worth watching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

    Jim

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my photoBob Lewis is a senior management consultant with Dell Services. He has published these columns once a week in one form or another since 1996.

Disclaimer: All opinions, statements, representations, allegations, images (if published) and anything else that appears here is the sole responsibility of the author. Dell has and had nothing to do with it, other than saying it's okay to continue publishing KJR.

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