The Incredible Story of Deft

You may know of Lean and Agile, but have you heard of Deft?

Published on 8 May 2017 by Isaak Tsalicoglou.

Every few years, a fresh banana peel is dropped by well-meaning experts.

"The incredible story of Deft" is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the perils of relying on methods experts, alluring narratives of success and inspirationally different companies, when attempting to create lasting organizational change and improvement.

Have you heard of Deft?

If not, you're missing out! Deft Management can provide a multitude of benefits to an organization, such as enabling it to, e.g.:

  • Continuously improve to become adaptable and resilient.
  • Consistently create high-quality products and services.
  • Repeatedly surprise customers with its empathetic forethought.
  • Reliably achieve revenue growth and reduced cost at higher profit margins.
  • Fiercely prevent inefficiencies and misunderstandings.
  • Empathetically attract, develop and retain talent.
  • Efficiently create innovative revenue streams in the digital world.

Deft truly is the bee's knees.

Tales of courage and unconventional thinking

Deft Management (henceforth simply called "Deft") has a long and interesting story, though no one is sure when, where and how it exactly began. There are as many tales and interpretations of Deft's origins and true meaning as there are people who believe they live it and breathe it—incidentally, these people tend to argue about whose version is "the right one".

Deft experts have recounted such tales in numerous books, some of which award-winning. Deft awards are handed out yearly by some special interest groups. These carry Deft forward (or, so they think), into professionals' minds and CVs, into corporate agendas, and onto tangible and virtual bookshelves.

Deft's history revolves around different quirky characters of an expansive, affable cast. Which characters you will read about depends on whose tale you might stumble upon on any given conference, book or article.

The hero's journey

In one such tale, we are regaled with a hero's journey of persistence against all odds. An industrious, visionary manager chose to follow allegedly unconventional approaches to get things done better. This enabled his then-underdog employer, Waseigo Corporation, to not only survive but also flourish in the face of industrial adversity.

In fact, so successful was Deft, that it eventually enabled Waseigo to conquer its target markets, despite stormy macroeconomics. Now, some critics may claim that this visionary hero only applied things developed elsewhere many years earlier, and simply put a PR twist on them. Still, Deft fans nowadays see Waseigo as the “Holy Land”. Many new university graduates are vying to make a “Deft pilgrimage” to Waseigo, or even join the company and so learn Deft from the source. And, they do, moving to other companies and industries later on, and attempting to "Waseigo-ize" them.

The maverick academic

A different tale revisits the escapades of the maverick professor who went against the grain in a stolidly conservative academic environment. She designed and put into practice novel methods to reinvigorate students' understanding of business, and there was much creativity and rejoice in the face of a doubting establishment. The methods were branded as a sub-category of Deft that only served to demonstrate how all-encompassing and all-powerful Deft thinking is.

The successful branding and marketing of the professor's ideas didn't only kick-start new university courses and entire curricula. It also ignited the progressive opening of various "Deft labs" around the world: bright and colorful kindergarten-like spaces, in which companies pursue innovation by applying Deft methods on their business problems, away from the hubbub of the daily, quite un-deftlike business grind.

The band of brothers

In another tale, we learn about a group of fearlessly creative professionals in an industry entirely different to Waseigo's. Fed up with chronic issues plaguing their work, and frustrated by the large array of Deft-compatible methodologies at their disposal, they decided to unite the world by laying down the foundation of a slimmed-down re-interpretation of Deft. The implicitly self-branded revolutionaries put their own spin to it by formulating a "manifesto" and a long list of principles to work and—for some—even live by.

In fact, they even called their ideas something else, on the surface breaking all ties with Deft's origins at Waseigo. This re-branding enabled some of the "rebel separatists" to go ahead and found their own kinda-Deft special interest groups. At the time, the popularity of Deft was going through a slump, as it has often done with regular cadence in its long history.

Therefore, the separatist re-branding also allowed the ideas to get unstuck from Deft, and sell it as something fundamentally new to managers vying for new miracle cures. Plus, it allowed the followers and practitioners of the "new" ideas to differentiate themselves from the old-school Deft crowd that was facing an increasing difficulty in appearing in business publications. Moreover, it allowed the separatists to split hairs over insignificant differences to the old Deft tenets—much like what happens with the typical offshoots of a mainstream religion.

The accidental gold diggers

Finally, we may also hear the tale of the thunderstruck researchers. For years, they had been visiting companies, among them Waseigo, to understand the secrets to enduring business success in a specific industry. Through interviews and observations, they identified principles and techniques linked to better outcomes. They observed major deviations from the norm in how these "enlightened" companies operated.

The researchers were dumbfounded at the realization that some of these companies had been “doing Deft” all along, without even ever calling it "Deft", or referring to Waseigo. Thus, they went on to write a great many articles and books, and to found their own Deft special interest group promoting Deft thinking as the one, true approach to getting things done in business—something that people would grok, if only they would simply try it out. The Deft special interest group grew and grew, seemingly with the number of book publications as its KPI.

For many years now, researchers and consultants associated with this once-influential interest group have had a curious habit: that of putting “Waseigo” in book titles and peppering subtitles with cryptic foreign jargon in use at Waseigo. Perhaps, because that's where they first witnessed their "business revelation". Or, perhaps, because they think that doing things just like Waseigo serves as a signal to the world: that they were provenly right beyond all doubt, and much earlier than anyone else.

Good ideas, and even better PR

The tales above resonate with most of us because they represent tales of discovery, elation, persistence, failure, and eventual success despite naysayers. The "hero's journey" narrative present in all of them resonates with human nature.

Unfortunately, beyond such tales of redemption, human nature also favors wishful thinking and "proven recipes", even in the face of uncertainty regarding their applicability. As such, Deft a-la Waseigo typically receives increased attention whenever things in business get tough. For example, when companies struggle with domestic or foreign competition, reduced customer satisfaction and willingness to pay, a diminishing technological advantage, increasing labor or material costs, or even challenges with hiring and retaining talent. After all, Deft's promise is that it solves all problems—somehow, eventually.

Deft saves the day

In such situations, numbers-driven managers tend to see in Deft a much-promising life preserver, as well as a PR booster. After all, great companies have often been found to “be deft”. Therefore (so the syllogism goes), a company “doing Deft” implies that it is or shall become great, too. Plus, it has become kind of politically-correct to at least say that your company is or trying to become deft. Thus, Deft has long belonged on every executive's agenda—something also proven by scores of top management consultancies' publications on Deft This or Deft That.

Yet, the McBCBainseys of the world are not the only ones to thank for the business world's enduring attention to Deft Management. Since Deft first received attention decades ago, a cottage industry has also sprung up to milk it for all it's worth.

Deft Everything™

There are Deft consultants, Deft coaches, and Deft methods experts. There are certifications and assessments for Deft/Pluck, Deft's most promising methodological framework. There are proudly Certified Pluck Masters who religiously apply its techniques—also because, after all, re-certification requires a certain amount of Pluck experience points every couple of years. There are Deft-flavored assessments, books and training courses for every business function and competence under the sun: Deft Development, Deft Supply Chain, Deft Manufacturing, Deft Leadership, Deft Strategy, Deft Thinking, Deft Startup, Pluck Project Management, etc.

The very existence of such functionally-focused viewpoints defies taking an all-encompassing look at a business. Ironically, this is what Deft thinking actually calls for. Perhaps that's why, by engaging different functions separately and in a row over the years, it has helped to keep Deft afloat despite an enduring dearth of success stories. Famously, most attempts at a "Deft transformation" (for which, marketable frameworks have been developed) are abandoned unceremoniously. Often, this leaves Deft and its lingo eternally tarnished within the organization—or until the next crisis rolls around.

An alluring, unimplementable philosophy

Around every three to five years the stars align (i.e., things get tough), and industry attention on Deft is renewed. With it, the noise around Deft and the fervor with which it is pursued are intensified. A fresh batch of companies wakes up from its slumber of complacency with a truly absurd idea: that Deft offers a miracle cure that is now a long-overdue item on the corporate agenda.

The "logical" conclusion for management is to invest serious money in getting the organization to "implement Deft". The goal? To “do Deft” and thus “become deft”. However, what they don't realize is that Deft is fundamentally unimplementable, at least in the sense that most managers think about implementation (and especially those coming from IT). After all, how could you ever implement what essentially amounts to an all-encompassing business philosophy?

Blinded by their own expertise

Regardless, companies often engage methods-focused Deft experts (sometimes, certified) to "implement". These end up implementing the only thing that's directly implementable: practical methods, techniques, and tools.

These elements are not bad in themselves, but also not enough by themselves to create the necessary change. Copied from books revering Waseigo as the one true birthplace of Deft (or some other tale of origination), they can be up-and-running rather fast—certainly much faster than the usual, glacial pace of truly changing mindsets and behaviors.

Blinded by their own sainthood

In other cases, (perhaps inspired by The Karate Kid,) companies hire "Deft senseis". These are sometimes high-status experts among the group of "thunderstruck researchers", preferably with a couple of Deft book publications under their belt.

However, ideally, the sensei is a grey-haired ex-employee of Waseigo with deep knowledge in Deft. More precisely: the sensei has deep knowledge of how Waseigo, in Waseigo's industry, in Waseigo's home country, with Waseigo's own company culture, did things in a deft-like manner... in the time period when the sensei was working for Waseigo.

For this level of Deft sainthood, Deft publications aren't necesary—the association to Waseigo provides the sensei with enough informal authority and power distance to quench all views opposing the Deft dogma, even by senior executives themselves. And perhaps that's why he's preferred, as the guy you can't say "no" to. The Deft sensei then prescribes what teams should do and guides them in applying Waseigo approaches to learn by doing.

Busywork

Regardless of their source, Deft methods and tools are highly visible by nature. They thus really make teams look like “doing Deft”. Unfortunately, teams are often simply performing busywork without an answer to "why are we even doing this, again?"—sometimes, even just to get the "father figure" of the Deft sensei off their case.

In any case, teams “doing Deft” look good to management cheerleading for Deft. In turn, management looks and sounds good claiming in internal and external events and publications that the company “is deft”.

Thus, short-lived benefits of the Deft methods' song-and-dance are soon celebrated. Sometimes, adopters of Deft methods are remunerated for their results (or even just for their efforts). In the process, this anchors Deft in their minds as something to "do" to get some extra cash (too bad that academic research has shown that extrinsic motivation is short-lived and can sometimes be seen as offensive).

Such side-effects deepen misconceptions of what Deft really is about and prevent much-needed introspection on the purpose, dynamics, and progress of the "Deft initiative". Still, the visibility of "Deft doing" and its early (and often unscalable) benefits spurs management to go ahead with even more pilot projects implementing even more Deft methods and Waseigo rituals.

Meanwhile, little else is changing in terms of instilling Deft ideas into new, appropriate behaviors across the organization. Moreover, little thought is going into asking tough questions, such as:

On strategic thinking, regardless of Deft

  • Which business objectives do we aim to achieve, anyway? And to what overarching purpose?
  • Which trade-offs are we willing and able to make to achieve our objectives? What can the organization survive and thrive just fine without?
  • Jumping into the future: assuming that we achieve our objectives, what else must also hold true then?
  • What would we need to address in any case, regardless of whether Deft is an option or not?

On Deft's applicability and adaptability

  • Which Deft ideas could actually help achieve our objectives, if any? Which are out of the question given our answers above? Which are must-try?
  • What are we doing already that is, actually, already congruent with Deft thinking even if not branded as such?
  • If feasible, how will we transpose newly selected elements of Deft onto our own business context?
  • Are any of Waseigo's company-specific approaches fit for our purpose, any good and, if so, how and to what end should we adapt to adopt them?

On motivating people, regardless of Deft

  • Do we really need to even use the word "Deft", or is that loaded with expectations and emotional baggage hurting motivation?
  • How are we going to motivate everyone to adopt new behaviors?
  • Which approaches to change have had success here so far? Which have always crashed hard, are fundamentally incompatible with the company, or are too far from what we are ready to tackle in terms of pain?
  • How are we going to motivate everyone to not get stuck at the first failure? How to not rest on their laurels, but keep going long after early success?
  • How are we going to make these behaviors person-independent and part of the organizational culture in the long run?

By neglecting or avoiding to answer these questions with brutal honesty, or even to admit "we don't know", teams end up getting intensely involved, but rarely emotionally engaged. Without any further motivation beyond the commandment to "go forth and do Deft; because Deft is good", people in all impacted roles arguably grow content with playing “Waseigo theater” until the storm passes or management attention wanes.

As soon as this happens, if the organization has survived intact, it will pretty predictably revert to its original, decidedly un-deft state. And, the doomsday clock counting down to another crisis and round of “Deft implementation” will be reset once more.

Sheer pragmatism instead of Deft dogmatism

For those of us who are more pragmatic, and perhaps tired of watching re-runs of "Waseigo theater", Deft is not something that we “do” or implement. We understand it as a set of really good concepts that inspires and informs how to support concrete business objectives by establishing a long-term vision that pulls the organization towards it.

We see Deft more as a way of thinking than a step-by-step recipe for success. We benefit from Deft even though we don't take it as gospel, or practice it exactly like Waseigo. We know that, as any set of ideas, Deft must grow beyond what it used to be at first so that it can adapt to different contexts and address new business challenges. We enable organizations to derive value from Deft without letting it define who we are professionally. Neither do we copy other organizations wholesale (such as Waseigo) to define what our organization should aspire to, and how exactly it should aim to achieve it. Instead of Deft dogmatism, sheer pragmatism is our guide.

In contrast to this pragmatic viewpoint, and perhaps as a deliberate act of marketing, Deft's inspirational origin and visionary concepts tug at the heartstrings of professionals. This is doubly true when we are tired by a recurrently immense workload—or, when disappointed by the chronic inefficiencies and missed opportunities we see all around us in business.

The way Deft is portrayed, it seems as alluring (and as elusive) as world peace. It stirs hope for a business world in which the complexity and ambiguity of work and human interactions have miraculously been demolished by an enticing recipe of ambitious principles put into place by simple, practical methods and techniques—such as Deft/Pluck.

Two households, quite unlike in clarity

The hope for immediate organizational pain relief through by-the-book measures has split the world of Deft fans into roughly two factions. There are those who believe that Deft is mostly about Waseigo-inspired "doing" in the pursuit of emulating the success narratives of other organizations. And, there are those who know that methods are only training wheels on the Deft bicycle of changing behaviors to face new challenges and realize new aspirations in diverse contexts.

An un-deft majority

The former majority keeps people busy in the name of adherence to Deft. It descends upon the organization loaded with prefabricated solutions that are meant to increase deft-ness in name only: e.g., Waseigo's principles, processes, checklists and must-do Deft activities. It argues for and against ideas based on whether something "is" or "isn't" deft and whether Waseigo does it—often splitting hairs in the process, with little connection to the achievable business value.

In trying to legitimize itself, the un-deft majority tries to paint Deft (and itself) as important and unavoidable because of external authority, such as Harvard Business Review articles on Deft. It prides itself on standing on the sidelines of business as a pure consultant or a subject-matter expert specialized in Deft "doing"—as someone separate from the business itself, above it, and far away from people in action.

A deft minority

The latter minority enables others on all levels of an organization to translate Deft concepts into beneficial everyday behaviors. It doesn't get stuck on whether something "is" or "isn't" deft based on some popular definition or management expectations. It sees Deft, as many other management ideas and fads, as ideally supporting a better integration of all functions towards concrete business objectives; a menu of options for improvement, out of which not everything is valuable at all times.

The deft minority helps the organization establish a vision that pulls it forward, as well as to adaptively design and pursue the interim objectives and learning loops that will bring it closer to the vision—regardless of whether these are deemed as "deft" or not by books or by the un-deft majority.

Most importantly, the deft minority doesn't hesitate to good-naturedly—and with humor—challenge the organization's assumptions and methods applied on all levels, including those of Deft experts and even senseis. Even if this means that the business objectives might ultimately not be accomplished according to the books with “Waseigo” on their cover.

So, have you really never, ever heard of Deft? And are you in the minority?

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. However, identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, organizations, concepts, and products is intended and should, ideally, be inferred.

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