Innovators, Imitators, and Idiots

In a PBS interview concerning the financial meltdown Warren Buffett commented on the natural progression of how good ideas go wrong. He called this the “three Is.” “First come the innovators, who see opportunities and create genuine value. Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done. Sometimes they improve on the original idea; often they tarnish it. Last come the idiots, whose avarice undermines the innovations they are trying to exploit.” (From Practically Radical, by William C. Taylor).

This sparked my thinking about where the agile movement is in this progression after a decade of evolution. We are more familiar with the technology adoption curve—enthusiasts, visionaries, pragmatists, conservatives, and skeptics. Many pundits project that the agile movement has crossed the “chasm” (popularized by Jeffery Moore) into wide acceptance in the industry. But what about Buffett’s progression? Are we in danger of being overtaken by the imitators and the idiots?

There has surely been a large influx of imitators into the agile movement, inevitable as the market for agile services and tools has expanded rapidly. As the quote indicates, many of these imitators have added improvements while some have tarnished the agile brand. And, there have been a few idiots, people and companies who barely know how to spell agile hanging out their agile shingles, often giving agile delivery a bad name in the process.

But the real question is how do we keep moving forward as a movement? There are at least four keys ways that come to mind: continue to innovate, balance idealism and practicality, reinvigorating our agile value roots, and unify rather than splinter.

First, I’m encouraged by the innovation that continues to occur: DevOps, continuous delivery, the conversations over technical debt, Lean, Kanban, Agile/Adaptive Leadership, and more. Continued innovation combats the creep of staleness that tends to infect movements after a few years.

Second, particularly as agile permeates into larger organizations; we have to focus on both idealism and practicality. Many people don’t care much about esoteric arguments—they care about results. Idealism and innovation are absolutely necessary for a vibrant movement, but they need to be balanced with a dose of practicality.  For example, I worked with a large organization that had a corporate-wide phase-gate process for project governance. They were able to work out an agile version for software development that still fit within the overall governance process. The idealistic approach might try to eliminate the phase-gate process, but that would not have been acceptable to management and would have damaged the credibility of the agile roll-out.

Third, the power and attractiveness of the agile movement lies in its values as expressed in the Agile Manifesto and the Declaration of Interdependence. The more we can emphasize the dual importance of both doing agile (practices) and being agile (values), the better we can move forward on a solid foundation.

Finally, as any movement grows there are times when it tends to splinter and times (sometimes) when it unifies. I appreciated Mike Cohn’s recent Scrum Alliance update when he said, “We want Scrum teams to look beyond the Scrum framework and experience the great ideas found in our sister approaches of lean, Extreme Programming, Kanban, Feature-Driven Development, DSDM, Crystal, Adaptive, and more.” Efforts like this to bring the Agile/Scrum/Lean/Kanban/etc. communities together, rather than continue to splinter further, leaves less space for the idiots to exploit.

So as to where we are in the innovators, imitators, idiots’ progression? The answer may not be as important as the question. The trick seems to be to rotate back and forth between innovators and imitators—advancing and then consolidating—without falling into the idiot trap as did the financial industry. Hopefully focusing on agile values and principles, continuing to innovate, balancing between idealism and practically and taking opportunities to unify rather than splinter will keep the idiots at bay.


    1. Jim, I agree that – “Many people don’t care much about esoteric arguments—they care about results.” That should be the case.

      But I do worry about this following statement though :

      “The idealistic approach might try to eliminate the phase-gate process, but that would not have been acceptable to management and would have damaged the credibility of the agile roll-out.”

      So we wouldn’t do it because it is not acceptable to the management? Are they still getting the value out of the type of Agile roll-out they did? Most of the scenarios I run into are where teams are great in adopting Agile way of working, getting the working software out frequently, learning to reduce WIP, etc, etc.. then we hit a brick wall because Management still wants to do things the way we have always done it. We want to figure it all out upfront, and then live up to that too – we are just doing it in story points as oppose to the number of hours we were use to.

      I agree, idealism, and shock therapy will not go very far. But a there should be some kind of soul searching at the organizational level on why we are doing this new thing.

      Here is something I heard from Dr. Goldratt: Organizations usually bring process changes to eliminate some type of limitations that the organization has. However, many a times they do not realize that they already have rules & procedures in the system that enabled them to live thru those limitations and constraints existed for a while. The new process under old rules, may not do much good. Sadly many organizations do not realize the need for changing these rules & procedures.

      I need to learn how to approach this myself – may be you can share some of your experience.

    2. Rafael Nascimento says:

      Hi Jim!

      Be sure we already have the idiots. Here in Brazil, some organizations say they’re agile just because it’s nice, modern and makes money.

      Wonderful post!

    3. Hi Jim,

      Your post reminds me of the paper “Lifecycle of a silver bullet”. You’ve seen it?

    4. All agile implementations will have to interface with with non-agile processes somewhere, as mentioned in this article in the gate-phase process. The world is not fully agile. So decide where and how you want to interface to get the most out of agile, and contribute towards the goals of your organization.

      I appreciate that you mention the agile values. With all the process focus around, we should not forget that it is about people; that is what makes agile work.

    5. What is missed by Buffet and those who subscribe to the theory of the technology adoption curve, is that sometimes the innovators are also the idiots. Not all new ideas are good and many bad ideas take a very long time to reveal their true nature.

      That’s not to say that you can’t make money from bad ideas – I’m sure there were some investors who made a good profit on E-Toys by well-timed buying and selling.