The Business Agility Manifesto – The Authors Speak Out

    Q&A with Roger T. Burlton, Ronald G. Ross & John A. Zachman

    What prompted the authors to create the Business Agility Manifesto? What gaps were they trying to address? Who is the Manifesto for? This probing interview addresses these and other far-reaching and very timely questions. Don’t be satisfied with what you’ve read or heard or experienced about ‘agility’ in the large until you have read their ground-breaking views.

    Why did the three of you write the Business Agility Manifesto?

    RGR: For so many years we’ve seen a lot of energy and work and talent being squandered. At the beginning of 2017, it prompted the three of us to stand way back and think deeply about where we are and how we need to think differently. It was a year-long process. The Business Agility Manifesto and its support material was our deliverable from that effort.

    Here’s the big question of our day about change, innovation and software development: Given (a) the deep complexity of business knowledge, (b) the limited, flawed memory of humans, and (c) the rate of change in business, do SMEs, analysts and developers have the capacity to remember business knowledge accurately and fully? And will they always be available when answers are needed? No! So we believe business knowledge needs to be externalized from software and be explicit, not tacit.

    Can you do that? Absolutely. That’s what The Business Agility Manifesto is about.

    JAZ: Business agility is not a new issue. I personally have spent more than 40 years of my professional life focused around this issue and I certainly was not the first one. Alvin Toffler published Future Shock in 1970, the first of a dozen or so books on change. Peter Drucker published Managing in Turbulent Times in 1980, one of more than two dozen books on change. John Kotter published A Force for Change in 1990, the first of a dozen books on change. Since 1977, I have written 3 or 4 thousand pages of articles on change as I have argued that change and extreme complexity are the issues that force focus on enterprise architecture, a formalized store of facts about the enterprise.

    I have known Ron Ross and Roger Burlton quite personally for most of my 40 years of focus on this subject. We all come from completely different orientations – I from enterprise architecture; Ron from business rules; and Roger from business process – and interestingly enough, we all come to completely consistent conclusions. We felt that based on our collective years of experience, it would be significant to compile a comprehensive list of principles that must be taken into consideration in designing and managing a 21st century enterprise to accommodate the escalation of complexity and change.

    RTB: The three of us have been in the business of enterprise-wide change for many years and we have noticed there is always something that seems like it’s the one thing that’s going to be the solution to all of our problems. It’s never turned out to be true. We typically become distracted by some other hyped technology or practice which itself becomes all-consuming. In looking at what worked, we have noticed that it’s was not client server technology, the cloud, BPR, data quality, the internet, empowered teams or agile software development to name just a few. These all had value but, in and of themselves, were insufficient in dealing with what we see as essentially a multi-dimensional complex challenge that requires a more holistic approach. We wanted to get out the word now and change some of the prevalent thinking.


    Why now? Why was now the right time for the Manifesto?

    JAZ: Although there has been an awareness of the subject of change, adaptability, agility, flexibility for years and years, and even an acknowledgement of urgency for 50 or more years, the problem is that by now, it is startlingly obvious there are no ‘silver bullets’, no ‘quick fixes’. Money alone is not going to solve the problem. Actual work is going to have to take place. And, as complexity increases, the change problem worsens, the point of no return is traversed, and then one morning there is no money. And, complexity does not necessarily equate to size – it equates to structure. Somebody needs to get brutally honest! For some enterprises, it is not too late – yet. Now is the time.

    RTB: The pace of change in the business ecosystem will not suddenly just relent. Disruption is broad, affecting everything in organizations. Organizations do not have time to get it wrong or get it late – and software methods are not the sole answer.

    RGR: I believe we have entered the knowledge economy. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that happened, but the emergence of digital thinking, bots and machine learning have clearly signaled a new era. But we haven’t adjusted our thinking and techniques in response. It’s time we did, or the rate of change and innovation is going to rapidly undermine our organizations. Current methods are simply building on quicksand.


    What is business agility?

    RTB: Business agility is the ability to effectively and rapidly anticipate and respond to changes in the business ecosystem with changed products and services and supporting resources to remain relevant in the business marketplace.

    RGR: I describe business agility as an emergent property of a business that goes about things in a certain way in creating an infrastructure to sustain and protect business knowledge as an asset.

    JAZ: Business Agility is the ability to change enterprise characteristics dynamically in response to external demands from the marketplace and/or regulatory authorities. The characteristics that would necessarily have to be changed include everything that has inertia and upon which current operations depend including investments, culture, values, policies, and procedures as well as structural characteristics including inventories, processes, locations, responsibilities, timings, and motivations.


    Who was the Business Agility Manifesto written for?

    RGR: The Manifesto was written for business managers. That doesn’t mean everyone can’t read it and understand its message. Actually, we recognized that different audiences need to hear the same message, but expressed differently in terms that more closely reflect their responsibilities and concerns. So on the website, there are special documents written for executive management, IT project participants, and the software industry. The message to each audience is selectively expressed and fine-tuned.

    JAZ: The Manifesto was written for anyone and everyone who cares about the on-going success and ultimate longevity of the enterprise. I like to use the word ‘enterprise’ because it is the most all-encompassing label I have found that would include: public sector, private sector; automated, manual; management, labor; social, individual; any human endeavor, however it is categorized.

    The Industrial Age focused on products – the Knowledge Age focuses on people. In the Manifesto we tried to address the groups of people who were most interested in and responsible for critical aspects of business change including management and operations, software implementers, and even software suppliers. We didn’t want to leave anyone out and we think these categories are inclusive of everyone who cares and is making significant contributions.

    RTB: The Manifesto is mostly aimed at those decision makers in the organization who make choices when it comes to investments in resources to be used to enable innovations in the business model or operating model. Notably these are the executive leaders of the organization.


    There are many takes on agility in the industry. How can you be sure this is the right take?

    JAZ: In enterprises, we are dealing with extreme complexity. An enterprise does not have to be very big to be very complex. There is no one approach or ‘take’ for anything. The problem is, in all the complexity and diversity, there are vital dependencies. The Manifesto provides a comprehensive list of principles that must be taken into consideration for which many ‘takes’ may be taken but taken in such a fashion as to consider and protect the vital dependencies. The problem is, approaches that ignore the critical dependencies result in structural investments that are quick but deadly by precluding or obstructing ensuing change. What is an antonym for agile? Irrelevant, gone, extinct - if it is not changing.

    RTB: The Manifesto looks at this challenge strictly from a marketplace, external stakeholder, and measured business performance / results point of view. It is grounded in supporting the mission and vision of the organization. We contend that’s the right point of view. It shuns the notion of any single self-serving domain or functional perspective of the inside looking out.

    RGR: The Manifesto is directly grounded in Management Imperatives, which are spelled out clearly on the website. If you want to argue with the Manifesto, or propose alternative sets of principles, you need to start from those. Enterprises are in a time of rapid transformation. But they’re not going to disappear any time soon, nor is senior management(!).


    Is the Business Agility Manifesto exclusive of other approaches?

    RTB: No. The Manifesto does not prescribe the method by which the goal of business agility is attained. There will never be any single methodology, tool or technique suitable for everyone. The value of the Manifesto resides in its integrity ensuring that there are no inconsistencies or gaps when addressing design and change.

    RGR: No. The Manifesto is about long-term, structural fundamentals. It purposely does not address organizational agility or collaborative agility or team agility. Those are issues many professionals reflexively think about when they hear the word ‘agility’. There is nothing in the Manifesto that precludes those forms of agility whatsoever. We talk only about business agility and what enables it.

    JAZ: We made a deliberate attempt to ensure there is no product or methodological bias in any of the elements of the Manifesto. We were especially careful not to allow our own professional orientations influence any of our observations.

    Clearly, there is no one product or methodology that encompasses the entirety of the principles identified in the Manifesto. At the same time, the principles are sufficiently specific that someone with analytical skills and domain knowledge could logically and effectively devise or customize a methodological approach for it. There are no preconceptions. Enterprises are extremely complex and multi-disciplinary in nature. The problem is dependencies. Issues cannot be addressed in isolation. The challenge is integration. There is a lot of room for creativity.


    Are the benefits promised by the Business Agility Manifesto only long-term?

    RGR: No, of course not. You can see them emerge on each project or initiative.

    JAZ: The Manifesto is completely time-agnostic. It neither specifies nor implies short-term or long-term investment alternatives. It is simply a comprehensive (we, the authors, would suggest exhaustive) compilation of all the issues that must be considered in making reasoned judgments regarding risk.  In some cases, an acceptable amount of risk can be provided with a minimal investment of resources. In other cases, minimal risk can be obtained only with a substantial resource investment. But the issue is risk, not time.

    There is another critical consideration: Enterprises by nature are extremely complex. It is not reasonable to expect to know and understand the enterprise it its entirety at the level of definition required to design, operationalize and manage it. Furthermore, there is the added complexity that in every case, the enterprise already is operating (whether it is known, understood and risk-aware or not), and has to continue operating at the same time it is being designed, operationalized, managed, and risk-mitigated.

    The challenge is to accomplish that iteratively and incrementally delivering value with each increment while precluding structures that prohibit ensuing increments. The key lies in recording dependencies as they are identified and accumulating them in the formalized knowledge of the enterprise for impact analysis and for predicting and preventing ‘unforeseen consequences’ of every small and large change.

    This is not short term versus long term. This is the Knowledge Age paradigm.

    RTB: Economist John Maynard Keynes is attributed to have said “In the long term we are all dead” so while we strive for the best long-term vision we have to achieve progress in the short term. Perhaps the ideal state of complete business agility will remain elusive, but our view is that it is a motivation to keep us focused on the prize. This should become a new way of being as is Kaizen in Japan. We will realize benefits along the way even if we start small. This is not a project or program but a lifestyle change. We will have to get there incrementally – just as we got into the mess we’re in today.


    What problems does the Business Agility Manifesto address?

    JAZ: The Manifesto acknowledges that change in minimum time, disruption and cost is critical to enterprise existence in the Knowledge Age. Further, it observes that change is an engineering design issue made up of a myriad of risk-versus-cost trade-offs, related to potential cataclysmic failures – it’s one spark in a 747 fuel tank, one hinge on a DC-10 door, one rubber gasket on a Space Shuttle that sources the failure of the entire object. It is too late to fix after it happens. Since enterprise complexity is so great that it is impossible to consider all risk before being operational, it is imperative to examine a comprehensive survey of all possibilities and attempt to predict high-risk dependencies in order to prioritize concentration of resources. That is the significant contribution of the Manifesto.

    RTB: The Manifesto addresses the problem of decades of quick fixes and poorly scoped projects each of which added to the pile of redundancy, duplication, lack of integrity, and sub-optimal solutions that just attempt to fix the problem without taking a view of how various designs impact one another. The lack of a holistic view of business capability to support customers is obvious to anyone that has to deal with symptoms of broken processes and the angry customers who experience them. Because of the mess we cannot change fast enough and simultaneously maintain integrity. And the situation gets worse each passing day.

    RGR: A lot of current innovation in the industry features what I’d call the social dimension of agility. It talks about energizing the work of teams, organizations and leadership. That’s fine. But we wanted to go deeper, to the root causes of why business isn’t more agile. There are structural problems about how we handle business knowledge that will severely limit the effectiveness of any social remedy. We are now in the Knowledge Age. We seek to explain what the business needs to do to adjust and thrive in this new reality. We’re in pursuit of full and robust business agility, as measured by success in the marketplace or enterprise ecosystem.


    What solutions does the Business Agility Manifesto suggest?

    RTB: The Manifesto addresses the issue of starting from scratch every time on every change and creating redundancy, duplication, poor quality, and failed integrity. This makes it impossible to leverage our previous efforts and to know the impact of any changed item on any other. In turn, unintended consequences occur and incredible effort is needed to re-align everything in business operations when things go wrong.

    RGR: I would single out four solutions the Manifesto emphasizes.

    First are concept models, which address precision and disambiguation in business communication of all kinds – not just those important in requirements development and software development. Business knowledge is exceedingly complex. Until you can express it precisely, you are doomed to a world of miscommunication and misinterpretation, literally a Tower of Babel. A comprehensive, active, semantically-rich business vocabulary is a must-have in the Knowledge Age. You can’t expect customers and software developers to make up for what you can’t communicate precisely. Until you stand back and view this problem comprehensively, it’s hard to grasp just how big the elephant really is.

    Secondly, business rules. I don’t mean technical business rules – that’s an oxymoron. I mean business business rules – rules expressed for consumption by all audiences in the business.

    Thirdly, value chains. Models of end-to-end value chains provide the perspective needed to achieve true customer-centricity – ‘customer’ meaning the end-business-customer. They provide a means to escape the squandering of financial and other resources on piecemeal, silo-oriented, or channel-specific solutions.

    Lastly – and this is ultimately the centerpiece of the Manifesto – explicit business knowledge within a Business Knowledge-Base. Business knowledge subsumes concept models, business rules, value chains, and more – a single source of truth that is trustworthy, persistent and traceable. In the Knowledge Age, companies simply cannot afford any gaps in their corporate memory.

    JAZ: The Manifesto suggests holistically considering the exhaustive list of cataclysmic failure risks in order to prioritize and estimate resource requirements for mitigation so that resources can be allocated, projects initiated, and knowledge accumulated and formalized for risk mitigation and management. If deliberate action is not taken, the enterprise’s business will not be agile and the probability of survival in the Knowledge Age would be low to zero.

    Where can readers begin to apply the principles of Business Agility Manifesto immediately?

    RGR: You can start locally. Focusing on business vocabulary and business rules – core ingredients of business knowledge – will sharpen almost any business initiative or project you undertake. You will see dramatic improvements in communication and clarity almost immediately. To make the point differently, focusing on business vocabulary and business rules will very quickly reveal what you didn’t know you don’t know about virtually any problem space.

    JAZ: Personally, I would start with the CEO’s perception (or at least general management’s perception) of the enterprise’s biggest problem(s). I would parse out and organize the facts (knowledge) and their dependencies required to initiate activity to solve the problem(s), accumulating and ordering these facts in the enterprise’s formalized store of knowledge, its Business Knowledge-Base, for reuse in addressing subsequent enterprise problem iterations. I would supplement this Business Knowledge-Base with any additional facts required for enterprise engineering design trade-off decisions. I would institutionalize the process with appropriate governance to ensure that all enterprise change is incorporated into the Business Knowledge-Base. In this fashion, the creation of the Business Knowledge-Base adds value iteratively and incrementally solving enterprise problems and growing over time as a Knowledge Age ‘way of life’.  Furthermore, the Business Knowledge-Base can be designed for change and employed for dynamically reconfiguring the enterprise on demand – that is, true enterprise business agility.

    RTB: You can start by asking for models that already exist on any and all domains that you have to deal with such as process models, business rules, concept models, role models, journey maps, etc. By reusing these you are leveraging a common reusable base. In any and all initiatives, including those conducted with agile software techniques, update the models and store them somewhere that can be accessed by any and all other projects or changes. In the models show where any one item is connected to others in play. In other words, build up your business knowledge from your existing and formalize it once you are done. Make it a policy to have to go back to existing knowledge and to repost it as part of your work.