Top agile books which aren’t about agile or software

Christmas is almost here and the end of the year is nye. That means it is time for newspapers and journals to start publishing “Top books of the year” lists and “Christmas recommendations.” So, prompted by a recent thread on LinkedIn I thought I’d offer up my own book list: top books for agile folk from outside of agile (and software).

That is: books which are not explicitly about agile (or software development) but which contain a valuable message, and possibly techniques for those wanting to expand their knowledge of, well, agile.

Most of the books I’m about to list address philosophical, or mindset, underpinnings of agile: how to think in an agile way, rather than “how to do agile.” That might disappoint but think about it, how could a book from outside agile tell you how to do agile?

Well, actually, there are three which do.

First The Goal: written in the style of a novel this book explores the theory of constraints and elementary queuing theory, without mentioning either by name. Since it is written as a novel – with characters and back story! – this is an easy read. But please, don’t judge it as a novel, judge it for the message inside.

Next up is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: I blogged a few months ago how these habits could also underpin a team working style. Whether you read this for yourself or with an eye on your team this book does contain actionable advice – and some ideas on how to think. It can be a bit of a cringe in places and I’m not sure I agree with all the ideas but it is still a worthwhile read.

Finally in this section is a book at the opposite end of readability: Factory Physics.

Make no mistake this is a text book so it sets out to teach and can be hard going in places – there are plenty of equations. But, if it is a solid grounding in queuing theory, variability, lead times and the like you want then this is the book to go to. In fact, it might be the only book.

That is it for hands on books which will tell you how to do things on Monday morning. The books which are ones I consider “philosophy” – how to think. Thats my way of putting it, a more popular way of putting it is: Mindset. These are books which have shaped my thinking, my mindset, and as such underpin my approach to all things agile – and more!

First here is The Fifth Discipline. This may be the founding text in the field of organizaional learning, ultimately all agile learning and applying that learning. The “learning view” underpinned my own first book and that still fundamentally shapes my approach to working with individuals, teams and companies.

My next choice continues the organizational learning theme and is the source of perhaps the most famous quote from the that field:

“We understand that the only competitive advantage the company of the future will have is its managers’ ability to learn faster than then their competitors.”

The Living Company presents an alternative view of companies and organizations: rather than being rational profit maximising entities this book encourages you to see companies as living organisms. As such the organizations true goal is to live and continue living. Trade, and even profit, is simply a means to an end. And like all successful living things companies must learn and adapt, those that don’t will die.

Living Company is not alone in presenting an alternative narrative of how companies work. My penultimate book presents an alternative view of that most sacred of management practices: strategy.

The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning is a major work that not only charts the historical rise of strategic planning and the subsequent fall it also present an alternative view of what strategy is and how companies come by strategies: strategy is a consistent pattern of behaviour, strategy is part plan but is also emergent and changes in respect to what happens. Strategy claims to be forward looking but is equally retrospective, strategy offers a story to link past events together.

Along the way Rise and Fall accidentally explains where the waterfall comes from (Robert McNamara), how planning is controlling and why even with almost unlimited resources (GE and Gosplan) the best attempts at planning have failed. If you harbour any ambition to implement Scrum at the corporate level make sure you read this book.

All the books above are over 10 years old and had I written this list 10 years ago it would probably be the same. But two years ago I read Grow the Pie, this advances the discussion of why companies exist and how to be a successful company – the secret is to have purpose and benefit society. Written before the pandemic it is now more relevant than ever. Again it isn’t an easy read but it pays back in thoroughness of argument and reasoning. And if for no other reason, read Grow the Pie to really understand what constitutes value.

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