Dave Thomas gave an interesting interview last week about the Agile Manifesto and the Agile movement. Dave was one of the signers of that document. His words bring light to something I’ve been struggling with.
I’ve recently stopped working for BigCo (a large organization you’ve heard of). I was a scrum master for what grew into a fairly large team. BigCo was interested in going agile. They had seen incredible results from one team in particular and wanted to push those results throughout the organization.
So, we started using a fairly sophisticated approach to our agile work. I think this has worked well in other big companies, and may eventually work out at BigCo. They will have to make some adjustments first, however.
The trouble we had, at the end of the day, was we were trying to push agility top down throughout the organization. This scared the hell out of a lot of people. People would introduce themselves with “I’ve never done agile.” It was like a skill that they were supposed to have learned. Others had taken a class in it and came across as “certified”, whatever that means.
A Gentle Perspective
Now, a big part of me is compassionate for these people. They work in a quicksand environment. Their value to the organization is how they are perceived. Many of them have worked hard, learned amazing things, and are ready for service. Then, someone shifted the ground they walked on. Now they have to be proficient in agile methodologies to be relevant.
Dave, at least, wasn’t trying to start a movement. He points out that the Agile Manifesto was based on the personal values of the signers of the document. This is how they wrote software. They thought it would be useful to share what works for them.
Let’s take a look at the manifesto and its uses and abuses at BigCo:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools: BigCo has a REALLY hard time dealing with individuals and interactions. There are just too many individuals at BigCo to focus primarily on them. Additionally, there are innumerable agendas living in that organization. There are teams competing for the same resources. Groups are hired to deliver inconsistent goals.
Processes and tools are used to justify one’s actions. It is a defense in a hostile environment.
However, there is greater value with meaningful professional relationships. Interactions get more productive. When a team is dependable, the energy is focused on moving forward.
Working software over comprehensive documentation: BigCo LOVES their documentation. A “good” meeting was outlined with a PowerPoint presentation. Meeting notes circulate the organization to show progress. In most cases, productive development is disrupted to maintain and build more documentation. The documents are used to defend team members against each other.
BigCo doesn’t profit from looking good, but doing good. Software can leverage their actions and do more good. Working software delivers the value BigCo is looking for, the rest is an illusion.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation: Customers were not found at BigCo. Representatives were chosen to assure compliance to any service level agreements made. As a result, they could not tell us what items should be handled as a higher priority. They could not decide that any feature was confusing, overbearing or misleading. At most, we could deliver compliant systems at BigCo.
The spirit of collaboration is about seeing things from a different perspective. Sometimes it means we make sacrifices. We trade something good for something better. Or, we simply grasp more completely the things the customer values and design a product for those values.
Responding to change over following a plan: The plan is used to defend employees’ relevance. So many things were decided in advance: the number of hires, delivery dates, required features. It was as if working at BigCo for long enough time endowed people with enough foresight to prepare for everything. As a result, products were expected in years rather than months. There had to be a plan for everything. Problems couldn’t be addressed as they came up without first reconciling them to the plan.
There’s deeper knowledge available as we move along. We see more clearly. We realize things we couldn’t imagine before. Maybe we didn’t have the patience to see everything. Maybe we truly are surprised at times. This should quicken our pace, to know more-perfectly the problem at hand.
In the end, the sluggish development at BigCo can be boiled down to defensiveness. BigCo is consuming itself by fighting itself. It could do better if it wasn’t so busy defending itself. This is basically the point Dave was making as well:
Agility cannot be imposed from the top, simply because good agile practices have to be discovered by the people using them—they cannot be imposed.
So I call for the adoption of agility to revert to the original, effective form. It starts from the people working on the coding coal face, and organically grows throughout the company.
For this to work, we need developers who care. More importantly, we need developers with courage, because they (and their values) will be up against a lot of resistance. Doing the right thing has always been a dangerous practice.
If we are not busy defending ourselves, what are we doing? We’re getting feedback. And responding to it. In Dave’s words:
- Find out where you are
- Take a small step towards your goal
- Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
This is simply a feedback loop. What makes it powerful is that it doesn’t contain any actual practices. Instead, as a developer, you have to work out how each step applies in your situation. And, as if that’s not enough, you have to work out what the situations actually are.
In this scenario, a person isn’t really a resource. Yes, they’re doing resourceful things. They are more than that. They are reacting and acting and taking responsibility and ultimately deciding what is the best course of action they can see today.
Except—real life doesn’t have many totally obvious “best ways of doing something.” So there’s one additional practice: when faced with two of more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.
This is what we reclaim. We don’t need acronyms, consultants, complex diagrams, conferences and the like. We just have some ideas that can be written on an index card, along with the courage to apply them relentlessly.