Plasticity vs. versatility for the agile enterprise


Almost all software development shops or internal development teams (and, really, any software project in its own right) follows an agile methodology these days. Almost no one intentionally develops software using waterfall any more (and to be honest, agile has become so ubiquitous that developers often don’t even list ‘agile methodology’ as a ‘Pro’ in a sales deck Pro/Con list, because almost no one uses waterfall any more). All that to say, agile really is the name of the game when it comes to efficient and transparent software development. But agility goes beyond best practices for software development — it’s the key to sustained success for any enterprise in the modern economy. So how do you and your projects ascend beyond merely “agile” development methodology to become a fully-baked agile enterprise?

Plasticity x versatility.

Agile enterprises

The key to an agile enterprise is a mixture of plasticity and versatility. While they may seem somewhat similar in meaning, there are important distinctions between the two.

Versatility refers, in this context, to your ability (or your team’s ability or your client’s ability) to adapt and change business processes as needed without having to change architectures.

Plasticity, on the other hand, refers to an enterprise’s ability to change architectures without impacting or altering business processes.

What do these actually mean in practice though? Why do they matter? And what makes agility so prized, anyway?

What is the virtue of agility?

We can talk about agility, plasticity and versatility in abstract or philosophical terms all we want. At the heart of the issue, though, is the corporate value of being agile. Agility isn’t an end in itself; it’s not virtuous by nature. But, it is absolutely crucial to business success in the 21st century.

No matter the industry in which you operate, the most consistent hurdle you’ll encounter is change. The speed of innovation and disruption is so steep today that change is quite literally a guarantee; it’s a fact of life in our modern economy and society. That’s why agility provides so much value to organizations. If you’re agile, by definition, you can react to those changes quickly and adeptly, ensuring that you’re serving your stakeholders as well as possible, with the least amount of system down time or operational disruption. If agility is a core focus of your enterprise, it means you’re best able to serve all your stakeholders both now and well into the future. If you can execute on that mission, it means you’re well positioned permanently.

How do you get agile, then?

To achieve agility, then, you have to be laser focused on both plasticity and versatility. In practice, that means when your users’ requirements change (whether that’s internal stakeholders or clients, etc.), your applications have to adapt rapidly — that’s versatility. You should be able to actuate change requests in user needs or experiences without having to completely rework underlying system architectures. At the same time, you have to be able to change your entire enterprise capabilities if there are wholesale changes in business objectives (again, for whichever stakeholder you’re serving in this instance). That’s plasticity. This means you can keep business units and processes operating at scale, efficiently, even while you’re modifying or enhancing underlying architectures for what comes next.

The challenge, as you have probably sussed out, is how to balance these two seemingly discordant goals — you want to be able to change business processes or not, or change architecture or not, based on whether you’re being versatile or plastic. The key is that you have to be rigorous in your analysis of stated goals and optimal outcomes. You need to read between the lines of whatever your stakeholder is requesting or requires to realize if they truly need a plastic change, a versatile change, or all of the above. Only when you begin thinking on all three axes can you achieve true agility.

Enterprise success isn’t an x-axis for versatility and a y-axis for plasticity where, so long as you’re moving upward and to the right, you’re succeeding. It’s a three-dimensional space with agility as your Z-axis, because agility for agility’s sake, which we outlined above, isn’t an intrinsic good. It’s a tool that allows you to achieve enterprise excellence when used wisely and effectively to achieve real business ends. So, if you’re moving upward, to the right and forward in this theoretical space, with agility toward a worth business end as your Z-axis, then you’re an agile enterprise. The ability to be agile in any one business decision, business process or business system pushes your enterprise toward permanent agility. The more you move upward, rightward and forward, the more successful you and your company and your stakeholders will be.

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