The Fruitless Search for the Holy Grail

How Essence overcomes the problem of One-Size-Fits-All Methods

The business consultancy and software development industries love a fad. The notion that all current problems have been analysed and solved with a new framework or playbook is tremendously seductive.

We like to think that being cutting edge and modern means jumping on to the latest training course or buying the latest management model, and we want to believe that they represent the Holy Grail of the one great approach that will work for every situation. We see this all the time. It makes logical sense – Surely a perfect method must exist, if only we could do the right analysis?

There is no Holy Grail

This is the same flawed thinking that leads people to believe that a perfect and accurate project plan exists, or that a complex problem can be solved by generating the right list of tasks for the team to complete. This belief is despite evidence to the contrary; despite countless projects that only deliver once re-baselined several times and whose final scope, cost and schedule bear little relationship to those at the start.

One thing we know about the Holy Grail is that it will never be found. The same is true for the perfect, one-approach-fits-all method.

Wanting it to be true isn’t enough to make it true

You would think that this repeated experience would lead us to the conclusion that we should do things differently. Yet that’s not what we observe. Instead, we still see people pitching their book, website or consultancy model as solving everything; or proposing a ‘New and Improved’ version of a framework or method that will save us. And because the industry loves a fad, and because people want it to be true, we believe them and the cycle perpetuates.

One reason this behaviour continues to occur and continues to be tolerated (and even encouraged) by managers and leaders is because the alternative is so unpalatable.

The best response to each problem may be unique

If we can’t find the one (or perhaps two) approaches that we can deploy to all of our problems, that means the alternative is that each problem may require a unique solution. It also means that we won’t be able to predict in advance what each of those unique solutions are. It means that each of our teams could be behaving differently, requiring different training, different competencies and different practices. And it means that each time a team tackles a new problem, they will need to reconsider their ways of working, often selecting a different approach to suit the new problem.

That sounds like heresy to many organisations; completely unworkable.

Organisations value consistency of approach so that they can compare people and teams. They believe that case studies and past performance are indicators of future success, that their teams should apply the same approaches and that people are easy to hire and train. It is easier to plan and forecast when people and teams are as fungible and easy to compare and shuffle around as dollars in a spreadsheet are.

Yet, however attractive that model is, and however much organisations want it to be true, the simple fact is that it isn’t. Overwhelmingly in today’s complex world, the situation for each project or endeavour is unique, meaning that the best response to it is also unique.

Embrace and react to uncertainty and change

The traditional management response to uncertainty is to try to remove it. However, when the uncertainty is endemic, that will always be futile. No sooner have you removed once source of uncertainty than another one appears.

Instead, we must embrace it. We must expect uncertainty and change and be prepared to deal with it. With development methods or business change models, this means breaking them down into elements that are clearer and more certain. Understanding what the purpose of each one is, and then selecting the right combination for the problem being solved right now. Casting our net wide to consider a range of responses, not just repeating what we did for the last project.

As we start delivering the solution, when the situation changes, we mustn’t just persevere - that leads to inevitable failure. Instead, we must recognise that change has happened, reassess the best way to respond, and redirect ourselves accordingly.

Select from a large ecosystem of smaller, simpler elements

Fortunately, this is where Essence can help. The aforementioned large frameworks and management consultancy models may appear to be unique and integrated. But look deeper and you will find that they are comprised of many smaller, simpler practices, techniques and approaches. In fact, you can often find the same practices, techniques and approaches in different frameworks, sometimes with slight differences or names but still fulfilling the same purpose.

Essence provides a language and an approach to describing each of those smaller elements (or ‘practices’) in a simple, common way. There is a growing ecosystem of existing practices (such as Scrum, Spotify Model, Use Case 2.0, and many, many more) available to consider and creating new practices is straightforward. Those new practices could come from decomposing a big framework or grand approach or by capturing tacit, inhouse or bespoke approaches. If you are inventing brand new practices, the Essence language is easy to use and makes helps to keep your practice coherent and efficient.

Such an ecosystem of practices and patterns can then be compared easily by a team (or team of teams) who can select the elements that work for them and their unique problem.

In this way, it is straightforward to create an approach that suits each unique problem and each team – one that can adapt and flex as the inevitable changes occur.

The answer is not another framework

As should be clear by now, Essence is not another framework, and using it does not mean throwing away what you’ve already got. Instead, Essence will complement your existing approach. It will help you identify what elements are working well and you should keep; and help you select or create new practices in areas where you should do something different.

This is just one of the powerful and unique use cases of Essence. Explore the Ivar Jacobson International Essence in Practice webpages to discover many more.

Holy Grail image © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Contact Us