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  • Writer's pictureValentina Zanetti

Why Agile Alchemy?

Why Agile and Alchemy? What do these two things have in common and how are they similar? Where does a Coven come into all of that? Read about this and much more!


Alchemist's potions

Why a Coven?


One of the questions I get is why I chose to use the word Coven for my business... Well, there's from the obvious: being an intelligent, opinionated, neurodivergent, and socially awkward woman who would've, for all intents and purposes, be considered a witch not too long ago (it didn't take much, to be honest). But another reason I chose 'coven' is because I wanted to communicate a cooperative mindset and a willingness to explore the unknown.


In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first definition of the word 'coven' is 'a collection of individuals with similar interests or activities', and the example 'a coven of intellectuals' was used. This is exactly what I wanted to communicate.


Exploring business and team agility means dealing with a lot of unknowns: new technologies, emerging new business models and ways of working, consumer expectations being in constant flux and more demanding than ever, and constant crises and market changes. It's working on the cusp of philosophy-meets-art-meets-psychology-meets-economics-meets-technology, and a lot of it looks like magic to the outside - and inside - world. Of course, it's not, there is already quite a bit of science about it, but there is a lot more to be discovered. Which leads us to the next question I get asked a lot:


Why Alchemy?


Although now ostracized by the scientific community as a pseudo-science and occult mysticism, alchemy was once held in very high scientific regard for a long time. The first records of alchemy date back to the 11th century in China, and continue to permeate through the Asian and European continents' histories for the next half a millennia. Even a scientist as logical as Sir Isaac Newton had thought it worthwhile to experiment with alchemy, and it wasn't until the 19th century that the hypothesis of chemical gold making was conclusively disproved by scientific evidence.


Alchemy wasn't just about turning metal into gold, though, but also prolonging life and finding its purpose. It was, akin to astrology, an attempt to discover the relationship of man to the cosmos and to exploit that relationship to his benefit. Quite ambitious, isn't it? And sounds a lot like the promises made by some, saying agile will enable your business to work smooth and fast, do less but earn more, and pivot like a hummingbird, doesn't it?


Alchemy was also one of the first attempts at scientific exploration of change: changes that are chemical, physiological changes such as passing from sickness to health, in a hoped-for transformation from old age to youth, or even in passing from an earthly to a supernatural existence. Alchemy was highly rooted in (and preceded by) philosophy and religion, but also in medicine and metallurgy, and was one of the earliest attempts to find a common ground between these - in today's considerations - opposing mindsets, which is a lot akin to what agile is attempting to do again today.


Alchemy ultimately did not manage to confirm its two main hypotheses, but it was far from a failure. The scientific approach to experimentation was revolutionary. And it brought about a lot of improvements, primarily to metallurgy, which was mainly based in folklore and religion until then. Alchemy added a scientific methodology to the manipulation of metal, in the form of written records and defined processes, upon which further experimentation and empirical learning could be built. It contributed to pharmacology and medicine with the discovery of alcohol (i.e. aqua vitae) and other compounds, and their effects on the human body. It's still debatable whether chemistry spawned from alchemy or medicine/pharmacology, but what is certain is that alchemy greatly contributed. Compounds such as ammonium chloride, potassium chloride, mineral acids, and gunpowder are entirely accredited to alchemists, as well the discovery of multiple new chemical processes and the creation of new apparatus with which to conduct experiments.


Alchemist's library

Alchemy was also a big contributor to the scientific explorative methodology that laid the groundwork for today's modern chemistry, with Roger Bacon (1220—1292), one of the most prominent alchemists, representing a historically precocious expression of the empirical spirit of experimental science.


And this is where I believe agile and alchemy are greatly similar - both are an exploration of change. While alchemy studied metals and longevity, agile studies the relationship between the two seemingly unreconcilable aspects of business: the economic/logical side and the human/emotional side, in order to exploit that relationship to our own benefit.


Why Agile?


The digital era changed so many aspects of our daily lives and made so much information highly available that it's nearly impossible to keep track anymore. We make more decisions and have more options to choose from than ever before in the human existence, and logic behind how we make decisions is constantly under revision.


This poses a huge issue to businesses, who can hardly keep track with their customer's ever-changing expectations as it is, but they also have to deal with a never-ending onslaught of new businesses offering a better service for half the price... Resource optimization is no longer enough, especially when knowledge work is concerned, creativity - usually tied to the more 'emotional' facets of the human existence - has become a requirement for any business, and the importance of emotional intelligence in business can no longer be denied, so the traditional business models of the 20th century are no longer applicable.


The concept of business agility was formed in the early 90's in the software development industry, but quickly spilled over to many other industries. It was obvious early on that standard business models won't survive the digital revolution. The concept of business agility, however, draws its roots from the Kaizen methodology (from 改 kai - change, revision; and 善 zen - virtue, goodness), first implemented by Taiichi Ohno in Toyota after WW II, and revisited and refined in the Harvard Business Review article by Takeuchi and Nonaka, "The New New Product Development Game" published in 1986. Lean production, based on Kaizen, was popularized in the book 'The Machine that Changed the World' published in 1991, and Sutherland, Scumniotales and McKenna created Scrum, drawing roots from Takeuchi and Nonaka's article in 1993. Agile was on its way to make business history books.


Today, there are more than 50 different frameworks for implementing team and business agility, Scrum and Kanban still being the most frequently used, with Extreme Programming gaining more and more popularity. Various agile scaling models have emerged, such as SAFe, LeSS, new organizational structures such as Nexus or the Spotify model. Newly emerging management philosophies have appeared, such as matrix, sociocracy and holocracy, and entirely new business models, such as the Lean Startup. Each of these is an experiment in its own merit and data about the success or failure of each can usually be found readily available on the company's blog or website, which was unthinkable just some short 50 years ago.


So, as you can see, agility is in its very inception, but it has already accumulated so much information about the way business works, and it's not all numbers and money. A lot of successful business can be attributed to it's philosophy, creativity and management psychology. The psychology behind change is largely a part of People Management today, the effects of work-related stress and 'burnout' are no longer just a colloquial terms, but psychiatric diagnoses, zhe T-shaped skillset is now practically a mandatory requirement for most professionals, the study of team dynamics based on group psychology and principles set out by Richard Hackman are now widely applied in team formation endeavors everywhere. These are all areas of study that didn't start gaining traction until the 90's


And there is even more pioneering research is under way: a Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson is studying the importance and impact of team psychological safety in a work setting, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, Susan David, Ph.D., is studying emotional agility and it's benefits, Jeff Sutherland is currently researching the neurochemistry behind Scrum.


There's even more breakthroughs on the technology side, needless to say (I'll just say AI and Machine learning), and everywhere in between, all in the past 30 years or less.


Funnily enough, all of this would have been regarded mainly as 'hokum' as recently as 50 years ago and nobody would invest any substantial money in this research. But today it is an integral part of our every day life. What agility puts emphasis on is interactions and individuals, working products, collaboration and responding to change, and the concept and values behind business agility. As they prove more and more effective, the long-overdue funding for research in these scientific areas is now growing and we're discovering so much about how our species functions on an emotional and psychological level, that it's impossible to predict where these new findings will take us.


This ambiguity and uncertainty as to where these findings and agile itself will lead, however, provides a fertile ground for a lot of charlatanism surrounding agile. There's a lot of 'magic agile elixirs' being sold out there, there's a lot of one-size-fits-all solution propositions out there, there's a lot of agile professionals who don't understand the point, and there are far too many companies out there who have adopted agile for the wrong reasons and continue to ill-advise their employees on what business agility is and how it should work.


So, the question remains:


Will Agile, like Alchemy, fail in its purpose?


Honestly, I don't think alchemy was a 'failure', although it did not confirm either one of its hypotheses. I think it uncovered a lot to be researched and I think its bold and ambitious goals pushed the boundaries of scientific improvement farther than anything ever before. Which is exactly what agile is doing right now - pushing the boundaries of scientific research and constant improvement in businesses and individuals.


I don't know if the concept of business agility as we see it today will endure, probably not. It will most likely evolve into something we cannot yet foresee (I'm not a clairvoyant alchemist, sorry!). Maybe it'll keep its name, and maybe it'll be considered largely pseudo-science, but it will definitely lead to some new exploration and experimentation in previously uncharted territory.


And that is the point: to foster an empirical spirit of experimentation and innovation. When exploring business agility - don't aim for anything less.


Reach out to coven@agile-alchemists.com, and we can experiment and innovate together!

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