Oh how I loathe the term: capital-A-Agile.

It’s a common refrain. Software is difficult, teams are tough, projects change, companies learn, clients don’t know what they want, nobody knows what they want.

Oh, but they do know that they want it in 6 weeks. What do you do?

The obvious thing was to write out a detailed 6 week plan which captured all of the needs of the project, minimized known risks, delivered confidence that the project would succeed, and delivered success at rates only slightly higher than chance.

Agile was a breath of fresh air which came mixed in with other revolutions like Extreme Programming and Cynefin. The Agile Manifesto was written and essentially told people to embrace uncertainty through practices which supported change. If the 4 lines of the Manifesto are too much, I’ve also enjoyed hearing it digested into “Prefer small, reversible decisions”. Perfect.

But now it’s all fashion and no passion, baby!

Or, more specifically, you can’t throw a stone in an engineering department without hitting someone talking about how you should convert all your team processes to Scrum. Or maybe you already did, but they’re telling you how you’re doing it wrong. There are enough stones for all flavors here.

They’re not wrong. Agile isn’t wrong. But it’s all oh-so-wrong. Scrum or Kanban (or 6σ) will never save you.

What it’s all about

Fundamentally, you’ll never make change by pushing process. You get leverage when you change principles, when you change values.

Practices and processes can be a mechanism for training a team, but the irony is that you have to be completely self-aware about that fact. If we’re going to pull a Wittgenstein and throw away the ladder we’ve climbed, then we need to be aware that the ladder is immaterial.

Let me be more concrete. If you’re a team lead or lead of leads and you want to teach your teams to be more agile, then you should have a plan in place Day 1 for when you teach people to abandon the very practices they’re learning.

Because what Agile is all about is agility and agility is all about deliberate, focused, optimized change.

Learning to change

I already linked my past post on reorientation above but let me do it again. Agile is about agility is about change. Change is painful and scary and difficult unless you own it and practice it.

Why do people “prefer small, reversible decisions”? Because they’re cheaper to change. That’s an adaptive behavior for people who practice change enough that they can live and thrive in dynamic environments. A team that really embodies is a whole different animal.

But if practices don’t make change, then what does?

In my opinion, practice does.

Next time you’ve got free time with your team (or yourself) consider spending that time running an intentionally chaotic project as opposed to cleaning up some tech debt (though that’s good too). Treat it as practice to work with an awful client who changes horses like they have a problem with funk. Maybe simulate that customer yourself.

Reflection and growth

And then for f’s sake do and get good at retrospection. Retrospectives are again a practice, so instead ask

How good are we at seeing ourselves for who we are, for how we are embedded in reality, and for understanding the gap between what happens and what we desire?

Are you good at listening to your own emotions? Your own intuition? Are you good at contextualizing and disregarding those admonitions if they don’t line up with the reality you desire? Is your team good at that? Do they know how to talk about this stuff?

And here I’ll say that sitting down regularly and making time for this—sure, call it a retro—is a smart, smart move. It takes time, it takes practice, and since retrospection is itself the engine of deliberate improvement… well it all gets very meta and very, very important.

Take two and call me in the morning

So here I contain multitudes. I’m very eager to get teams up and running on basic life- and work-improvement processes be they Scrum or Kanban or Whatever-Our-Internal-Bastardized-Agile-Process is. I’m also very eager to tear it all down and start fresh. Actually, even better, I’m very eager to set in motion the machine that will tear down every process you throw at it and start fresh. I’m very eager to ask that machine to go to work on itself.

And I’m very eager to understand, with an actual group of people living and sweating and practicing together, what kinds of behaviors and beliefs and emotions and 100% organic practices make (local) sense.

That’s what I think agility feels like. Now let’s chat about that project you need in 6 weeks.

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