How do we explain Agile?

“No-one wants to be agile. They don’t even want to do agile. They just want to appear agile.” 

“Training companies are propagating a shallow understanding and superficial ways because there is a huge market.”

“We are now seeing second and third generations of misunderstandings from these courses.”

These are all quotes from J.B.Rainsberger’s (@jbrains) closing keynote at Lean Agile Scotland 2014, quoted on Twitter by me, Marc Burgauer (@somesheep) and Liz Keogh (@lunivore) respectively. (If you missed it (or just want a reminder) check out the Vimeo channel or search for #lascot14 on Twitter.)

These quotes sum up the big problem we have with making a difference to people with Agile.

Agile isn’t a silver bullet, despite the wish of CEOs and the claims of consultants and trainers.

We’re in a quick-fix society. People have a problem – their projects are late and turn out not to be what the customer wanted anyway – and Agile is supposed to fix that. So they jump to “an Agile process”…which misses the point completely.

Remember Agile Principle #1: We value Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools?  So how does focusing on and imposing an Agile Process fit with that? Sure there are plenty of useful processes which have come out of the Agile movement, and certainly it’s difficult to be Agile successfully without adopting at least some of the practices, but at heart, Agile is a mindset.  You can’t “do” Agile, you can only “be” Agile.

But it’s easier to pick up a process, and we’re painting the vision of how much happier and better everything is when we do this…for some definition of “this”…and they miss the fact that my definition of “this” is different to your definition of “this” is different to her definition of “this” because we have crafted a set of house rules that work for us and our environment, with the checks and balances we need for safety and success. And that almost certainly won’t work for you.

But you have to start somewhere.  Think of the principles of shu-ha-ri, the three stages of mastery.

In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forefoxes created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage ofha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws. – Aikido master Endō Seishirōshihan

Or as paraphrased by J.B.Rainsberger: “follow the rules, break the rules, become the rules”.

If Agile is about understanding the principles and applying them to your situation, don’t you have to jump straight to “ri”? Where do we get the chance to learn the forms and discipline if there is no one right way and every situation is different?

And this is the fundamental tension we have in trying to educate and spread real Agile understanding. People need some rules to be able to start learning. (And of course, consultants are DELIGHTED to take their money to give them some rules…). But those rules aren’t the learning and if you blindly apply them you have broken the rules.

So what can we do? How can we help people become more productive, more effective, happier and more profitable?

One key thing to remember is that rules are a key ingredient in facilitating change, even if it is the principles that are important – think of etudes in music (J.B.Rainsberger again). Under the guidance of a master, the rules have power and give a framework for learning. They also provide a safety net in that they give a clear way of telling whether you are following them or not.

So this suggests a vital part of a successful Agile transition is a master who can help select the rules and shape them for the organisation. A master who remembers that at heart, it is the Individuals and their Interactions that are more important than Processes and Rules, and so gets to understand the Individuals and how they Interact before coming up with Processes and Rules that support them…including Processes and Rules for shaping the Processes and Rules to ensure they flex as the environment changes.

Which is not going to be a quick process.

Which comes back to the fact that Agile is not a silver bullet, it is a complete change in mindset. And changes take time. It’s a social thing – the social organisation culture majorly affects how you work and how you succeed. Even architecture – that supposedly rigorous reflection of the structure of the product – is as much a social decision as a technical decision (thanks @drunkcod).

So how can we improve the understanding of what it means to move to an Agile mindset in a company? As J.B.Rainsberger lamented “we’ve scripted the critical moves, but we’ve failed to sell the vision”. How can we sell the Agile vision?  We need to start looking for things that bring people personal gain so it means something to them. We need to look for things we can do for them that make them feel like they’ve won.

We need to start involving the “customer” – i.e. the organisation applying the Agile principles, and talk to them in language they understand. We’ve spent so much time evangelising about Agile we’ve forgotten what’s in it for them.

Having conversations

is more important than capturing conversations

is more important than automating conversation

Customer conversation should be captured accurately eough that it COULD be automated; after that automation is optional

– J.B.Rainsberger

Can we take a leaf out of BDD and start talking in examples instead? Showing them benefits they might like, and ways of actually achieving them? Giving them examples of breaking stories down into sufficiently small increments of end-user functionality that they can be completed and got to done done within a 2-week iteration, while still delivering something that is of value to the user? And then showing how working that way led to a better product and caught several issues early? After all “we wouldn’t need hardening and stabilisation sprints if we had a real customer accepting the features as they were completed”.

Where is Agile by Example?

Er, thanks to Google, I find it’s in Poland from the 29th-31st October. I don’t know if there are any tickets left, but it looks like an awesome programme.

It’s up to all of us selling agile tools and practices to put ourselves in the shoes of our “customer” and offer tools which can help.  We don’t even need to mention the word Agile – just “here’s something which helped me and gave me these benefits – you might find it useful, too”.

And remember, they don’t need to collect the full set. In the words with which J.B.Rainsberger closed his keynote and Lean Agile Scotland 2014 “Agile is not a video game with levels to conquer”.



This entry was posted in Interactions, Process and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s