Passion, care and the Agile Manifesto is really all you need.

As I sat with a professional services team at my client, launching into my tried and tested description of what agility means and how to do it sustainably, the last 11 years of my life flashed in front of me and I saw something that I hadn’t realised before. It both scare and energised me.

My typical approach to this particular exercise is to begin by introducing my audience to the Agile Manifesto – the spark of the movement. I remember to use that word – ‘movement’ because I truly believe this is what those who truly do agile software development are part of.

Then I pretty quickly move on to processes (or process frameworks) – the ‘how’. I do this partly because I assume that is what folks want to hear – “enough of this happy clappy, pie-in-the-sky bollocks. Show us the meetings, the artefacts and stuff we can put on our CVs”.

I also do it because I hadn’t really stopped long enough to consume the manifesto, to meditate deeply on it. And that might be because I wasn’t ready.

Well now I am.

As I wrote the 4 value statements on the whiteboard, time stopped. For context, here is the Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

Manifesto for Agile Software Development

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

What actually triggered this epiphany was a simple question:

What would it take to fully understand each of those value statements deeply and live them deliberately – every day and in every facet of your team or organisation?

If you imagine a journey to increased agility was a 12 step program where you couldn’t proceed to the next step without satisfactorily completing  the preceding step,  then seeking to seriously answer that question would be steps 1 – 11 and mostly like a ‘formal’ process or framework like Scrum or SAFe would not even feature.

Don’t be fooled – this stuff is complex. Take an even modest attempt at going a little deeper into the first value statement – ‘ Individuals and interactions over processes and tools’ – :

  • Who are the individuals, what are the interactions? How do we know they are the right ones?
  • What personal and professional skills and competencies does each individual need in order to participate meaningfully in these interactions? How do they acquire and develop them?
  • What conditions sustain meaningfully interactions, how we create and maintain them?
  • How do we continuously sense that the interactions are not yielding what they are intended to yield? What do we do when that happens?

This is not a remotely exhaustive list, but they are considerable questions. In my mind, these are not ask-once-and-forget questions, they are to be asked and answered regularly.

There is even an earlier starting point.  Do we have the skills to ask the right questions?
Tools like powerful questions, clean language might be useful places to look to gain those skills. I have met far more people who suck at asking the most effective questions than not.

Now I’m not saying don’t do Scrum or use Kanban or XP or whatever the flavour of the month is. But it is very possible that you might do those and not enjoy the agility you seek, worse still you may get lost in process and without a solid understanding of these fundamental first principles you will struggle to regain direction.

I am saying go deeper into these 4 statements. Fight the urge to go into processes and the tickboxes. Do not simply ask questions and pat yourselves on the back that you answered them – actually execute on the answers. Make those answers make a difference to your work and your life.

And oh, if any of your answers is ‘do process X’ , then please consider getting one of these:

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