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Agile methods don’t exist. What does, then?

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Agile is Dead, Long Live Agility. 15 years after the birth of the Manifesto, many of us still don’t get what Dave Thomas meant, and why the heck this meaningful adjective started to work as a noun.

Here’s a bold statement: There is no such thing as agile methods. I cringe when I see a job offer saying: experience in (so-called) agile methods or agile methodology. First of all, it’s not the methods that are agile. It’s the people. Second, methodology implies replicability, predictability, and generalization. That’s the worst definition of agility I could ever think of.

By the way, this article was inspired by Petter Abrahamsen’s talk So you think you are AGILE — really? at the AgileByExample conference in Warsaw. Thank you, Petter! After reading this (and viewing his talk as well) hopefully you’ll gain several new points of view on agility. The first one I’d like to mention is…

Philosophy

Imagine a couple of tango dancers — says Petter Abrahamsen. Not the ones that do the ballroom competitions. The old and seasoned people of Buenos Aires, enjoying their afternoon milonga. They have been doing it for years, but they do not perform choreography. Although it looks as if they were, they have managed to communicate through gestures and movements, understand their bodies and follow some fundamental rules, which constitute what el tango is. That’s agility — Petter concludes.

Is it just steps? Hell no! It is a passionate, emotional and suspenseful act. Inside the realm of the rules of tango dancing, they communicate a lot of different things which are not part of that realm, in a constantly changing environment, and with such efficiency, that they keep the balance and don’t fall off their feet. To be agile is to move quickly, in changing circumstances, and with high efficiency.

To be agile is to move quickly, in changing circumstances, and with high efficiency.

Before choosing one of the famed methods to work with, think about values. Courage, openness, focus. Sounds familiar? Agility in business environment starts with wisdom, courage, and spirit, just as in the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Patience, my young padawan. First the mindset, then the lightsaber.

Strategy

Have you heard of those roadmap and planning charts where you can see the whole lifeline of a product? Topics, dates, durations, logistics, deadlines. It’s porn for managers. But same as porn, it rarely has something in common with the real life.

Meticulous upfront planning gives you an illusion of control and creates a comfort zone. Even if it’s extremely likely that the plan is doomed from the beginning, it gives you a cozy place to dwell on, to get back to, even if you struggle to adjust it to the ever-changing risks. But it’s simply impossible to foresee everything.

OK, so forget about roadmaps. Here’s where business managers step in and say — Are you out of your friggin’ mind? How can you say that you don’t know when it will be finished? And I respond: It’s not that I don’t know, it’s that I cannot be entirely certain. But let me show you how we can increase our chances.

When planning product development, use evidence, estimate, reveal risks and prioritize. Agility can exist here, too! There is no contradiction between being agile and staying within budget or delivering work on time. Didn’t the Manifesto authors say that they care about delivering finished and working stuff, made by happy people and to please the customer’s needs? Agility as a part of a strategy means two things to me: First: be reasonable, not radical. Second: iterate.

Agility as a part of a strategy means two things to me: First: be reasonable, not radical. Second: iterate.

A product roadmap helps to maintain a clear vision. But remember: it will probably be changing very often. You have a crucial deadline to launch your idea ? Fine, but prioritize first. Maybe the estimation you did with your team was correct, but what if it wasn’t? Instead of planning every detail from start to finish, prepare different scenarios. Don’t put yourself in the comfort zone, challenge your plans.
Then, think big ideas, but small changes. If one thing doesn’t work, do the other one, but let them both breathe. Iteration makes sense when you are able to observe, look back and evaluate.

Attitude

Engaging values requires mental effort. It’s so not about using fancy words like Scrum, or Kanban, or XP, or Lean (funny how these barely related concepts come together so often!). It’s about getting people to understand what it means to respond to change. What it takes to iterate. How is doing my job different from doing your job, and doing OUR job together?

Building a product is a team effort. Commitment and respect derive from the interaction of our personality and social surroundings. People commit to their work not only when they understand the common goal, but more importantly when they feel it.

Autonomy

I previously suggested that agility is a personal trait. Actually, it’s more of a team characteristic, but not just any team. Agility is neither for slaves nor for anarchists. Slavery means total obedience, whereas anarchy translates into absolute chaos.

Agile teams find their ways within clear, yet very general rules. That’s why one of the most successful exercises in agility training are games: football, basketball, chess, hide and seek—you name it. All of these game give a precise definition of how to score and who wins. Inside the rules, they give players lots of room for autonomy, self-organizing and improvisation.

Wait a second, so Scrum is a game? (duh, it’s a team sport, it even got its name from a rugby “formation”!) It’s a set of rules and roles to play. That’s why the Scrum Guide is just 16 pages. It’s not a work manual. The rules may (or may not) help you and your teammates with building a product. It’s up to you guys. All that falls somewhere in between these rules, and how to deal with it, is up to you as well.

So how can you manage something which is supposed to be self-organizing? Let’s go back to Petter Abrahamsen once again: a good captain is just a face to the team, not an actual leader. A good captain encourages self-organization. For the people working as all sorts of agile development managers or facilitators, from Scrum masters to Agile coaches, it should be the very foundation of their duties.

by Jan Ambroziewicz, Project Manager

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