I came to Agile late in life. For a long time I’d known that something was wrong, a sense that not all was right in the world of technology, of implementation, of how we made things and how we structured ourselves to make those things, of how we became successful, of how in spite of our best endeavors we sometimes succeeded. We looked to analyse to the nth degree, to work out everything that we could, to know in advance, to plan and then to stick to the plan. In reality once an engagement began the plan often went out the window becoming far more of a guide than a plan. We were the problem but we didn’t see it.
Sometimes the plan stayed. We clung to it knowing that our only hope of success was to stick to the plan; to bend reality to our will. We meant well though. We wanted success but over multiyear engagements it became difficult. The difficulties multiplied, skirmishes were won, some lost but generally we were advancing towards our target. Often that target morphed over the duration and became something different; often our client or our management changed the definition of success, their definition, not ours. We worked for them, not for us.
Then later we forgot the plan, we responded to the ebb and flow of change. We embraced the chaos and had faith in managing the chaos reacting in the best way possible at that time, in the moment. Mindful. This was where I discovered Agile. It addressed the mindset, the necessary culture to deal with complex change in highly chaotic systems, of those things that existed in our mind, the abstraction of our thought turned into reality.
How does embracing chaos work as a strategy? By accepting that we can’t know everything in advance, that the planned world is changeable, that change is not only inevitable but necessary. Embrace change or it will embrace you. Embrace the chaos. Sure, have an overall goal but work towards it in small iterative steps, the plan-do-check-act cycle. In a highly complex system like software development or technical and organisational change we can’t know all there is to know up front. We will make discoveries along the way. How we respond and react to those discoveries is critical. The Golidlocks principle: plan just enough but not too much.
How does this relate to Agile? The flow of value, the small batch sizes, the iterative cycles, the visualisation, the empowerment of the team working together with one end in mind. These are some of the things that I find most appealing about Agile. It addresses the chaotic nature of complex systems and gives us with just four values and twelve principles a way of looking at the world, a way that’s more successful than the Big Plan approach of bending all to our will, a realisation exemplified by King Canute in the first thousand years of the modern era. It recognises that we will learn as we progress, that how we respond to change is more important often than the change itself. Change is opportunity, things that we haven’t done or thought of before.
An unordered list of things I like about Agile:
- People – software is created by people and Agile is people centric;
- Culture – trust, empowerment, the “human element”, shared responsibility, working together instead of silos;
- Solution – owned by the entire team, swarming of issues, customer outcome and use focused;
- Visualisation – making complex work visible (extent, progress, blockers, WIP, cycle time, flow);
- Delivery – small increments of functionality which are actually delivered, fast feedback due to short cycles (and small batch sizes);
- Daily stand-up – working as a team vs individuals, commitment vs status, pulling vs pushing work, owning vs micro management;
- Sensible – what’s doable, agreed upon and locked in, the pace of work, how priority changes are handled; and
- Continuous – refinement, exploration and learning.
It’s threatening too. Change is threatening. Change forces us to review our essential motivators, how we think and why we act. Changing how we work, how we hand control to others, letting go. Changing cultural and organisational practice is extremely threatening. Then why do it? Because we’ve had it wrong for a long time, we’ve not set ourselves up for overall success, success at the customer level; the reason why we exist in the value stream itself.
I can imagine a scene some sixty million years ago with a bipedal creature looking up at the ever darkening sky, feeling the chill set in and deciding that it’ll all be OK if they just keep doing what they’ve kept doing all this time, I mean, how can anything really change?