Are you really being Agile?

Matthew Caine Uncategorized 0 Comments

Working as an Agile coach you get to experience many different teams working through their retrospectives. One particular team stood out from the rest, for all the wrong reasons.

To set the scene, we need to appreciate the fact that the scrum master did a brilliant job! He took the team through the process perfectly. Thus, the team was clearly “doing” Agile.

Yet when we looked at the ideas that they generated on their post-it notes they were the worst I had ever seen.

They had generated five post-it notes between them. You read that correctly, F-I-V-E! Not only was the quantity poor but the quality to. The responses were generic in nature, e.g. “communication”.

They were unable to reflect. They were unaware. They were clearly not “being” Agile. (They certainly did not trust each other either, but more on this later).

Quite simply, the level of awareness of what was good, bad, should be stopped, caused frustration or any crazy ideas, was just about zero.

Awareness though is not just for Yoggis & Hippies

At this moment in time, you may be thinking that awareness is for hippies and spiritualists, least for all for hard-core techies.

Well that is where you are wrong.

Let me explain: Did you know for instance, that software development is one of the most satisfying jobs available today?

Why? Well, it is not only analytical, but it’s also extraordinarily creative.

That means both the left and right sides of the brain are being used. It is why there is an entire movement entitled: “software craftsmanship.” (They even have a manifesto*.)

Yes, there has to be a lot of analytical ability and logical thought, yet it is the creative side that makes it so rewarding. Whenever software is written, it is new. Software engineers are constantly investigating, experimenting and creating all the time. And sometimes, those new algorithms are beautifully crafted which is reflected in the patterns of their simplicity.

In fact there are many books on patterns in software development.

But what has that got to do with awareness? Well, as explained, a lot of people think that the analytic side is not compatible with the softer creative side and thus think awareness is all the soft, emotional stuff, or fluff as some would claim. It is not.

Awareness, like software craftsmanship, is about spotting patterns and solving problems. Stuff that software engineers are brilliant at.

But those problems and patterns are things that are personal, that affect you.

“Being” Agile therefore, begins with you!

People talk about a team “being” Agile, but actually it is about the individuals in the team who need to start “being” Agile.

After all, it is the people in a team that answers the following questions:

  • What did you do well?
  • What wasted your time?
  • What was frustrating?
  • Who pissed you off and why?
  • What was the impact of your failure?
  • Who helped you and what was the impact?

When however, a new Agile team is confronted by those questions for the first time, especially the latter questions, their mind will not be ready for them. Clearly they are all very good questions – but only applicable for mature Agile teams.

To understand why, we need to recognise and answer the question “what is in it for me?”

What is in it for Me?

To help explain, we need to go back to 1997. In that year I started working on a project. The project continued for a further four years.

The first six months of the project were spent learning the technology and how to apply it. The remaining 3 ½ years were spent applying that technology and expanding the system. It was awesome! We were five people and we had built a truly amazing trading system that was even recognised by Reuters.

In 2001 however, I came out of the project and the world had changed.

C++ was no longer needed – it was all internet based technologies. I was an expert in C++ yet my skills were no longer needed. I had simply not learned and had not become aware of what was happening. I even remember thinking “This internet thing, it will never take off”.

How wrong I was. How arrogant I’d become. A true “big fish in a small pond”. This was my big learning. I became aware that I really needed to keep up-to-date with not just technology but also of what’s happening around me, and be open to it.

What is in “awareness” for me, was clear.

But I just did not know how. How could I know without knowing? How do we discover things? What questions can we ask, if we don’t know something exists?

How do we Discover the Unknown-Unknowns?

This is clearly the realm of Donald Rumsfeld**! Thank you Donald, for bringing that expression to the World’s attention.

Back to the question… How do we discover the unknown-unknowns? It’s actually very easy: We have to acknowledge that humans, by their very nature, want to acquire knowledge. Not only that, but we also want to get better and better and better at what we do.

And there is nothing better than getting out there. So, get out of your office, room, space and go to where the knowledge is. Even though we don’t know what that “knowledge” is.

Today, of course you can read articles on the internet or download books, but why not meet someone face-to-face. Go to a meetup group or a conference to discuss, debate and get inspired.

Once inspired, we can then go back into our retrospective and suggest a change, based on something that is no longer an unknown.

And when we do that, we get better at what we do, and then we automatically start to think about improving how we do it.

Then we start to become even more aware what is possible and what is influencing us. We are then able to trigger pattern detection by asking questions, such as those listed above. And when we start to reflect on those questions, we as individuals start to see those patterns emerge. When that happens we start to recognise the cause and effect of impediments in how we work.

Then, as we start to eradicate those impediments, we get even better and truly recognise the power of awareness and thus, open up even more.

And as we start to open up more, we in turn become ever increasingly humble.

Being Humble Means we don’t have all the Answers

Only when we are humble, do we start to recognise that we don’t have all the answers.

If we don’t have the answers we have to ask for help or we run experiments, which fail, but either way we learn. And isn’t it learning that we, as humans, crave?

If you don’t believe me, why do so many of us spend 15+ years in education, in some cases voluntarily whilst building up life-long debt? There is something in it surely? And if you still do not believe me, we’ve all been there. We’ve simply forgotten the delight in learning.

But there is more… by being humble and showing our vulnerability, i.e. we admit don’t know something, it also raises trust which in turn encourages people to help.

But Do Humility & Trust in the Corporate World Exist?

In many, but not all, corporate environments, humility and trust are rare commodities. It is one of the reasons why “Being” Agile is a very difficult thing to do in traditional corporate environments where having answers is the sign of strength. In fact, having answers is the way to get promoted, to earn more, to compete with your colleagues, even to withhold information… These might just be some reasons why it is so hard to “be” Agile in a corporate environment.

Back to Agile

We can see evidence of “being” Agile in all of our Agile ceremonies. Given the opportunity, we will be able to hear people admitting mistakes or asking for help during the ceremonies whether that is planning, stand-ups, reviews, retrospectives or refinement.

If not, then your Agile ceremonies will not show signs of trust and your team is merely “doing” Agile. It is certainly not “being” Agile. It is certainly not humble.

In such an environment, we will typically hear statements such as “can we” or “we not allowed” or “it is not possible here” to the infamous “we’ve tried that already, it did not work”.

Yet when a team is “being” agile we will hear forward-looking statements such as:

  • “how do we do this?”
  • “let’s try it!”
  • “Who wants to help out?”
  • “It won’t hurt”
  • “If it does not work, we can change again”

And what a place that will be to work in!

Because then we are truly “being” Agile.

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