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I recently ran a coaching session for a team who have been adopting agile. They were struggling to gain value from some of the practices and felt a little guilty, but I was impressed with how they collaborated, focused on what mattered and took accountability for delivery.
I told them that they were actually pretty agile, but they were not making the best use of agile ceremonies or techniques such as user stories.
It got me thinking about the value of agile and where I had seen it work. Then I started thinking about why it failed in so many cases. And that is what this article is about – why agile often seems to fail when the coach and the team want it to work.
I have some theories on some of the causes, such as forgetting the importance of doing good work. But that is not what I am writing about here.
I got stuck at the airport and started scanning twitter. I found the hashtag “#agilekillskittens” where people were sharing harrowing tales of agile being inflicted on them.
I think it might be a little extreme to claim that kittens are dying, but there were some uncomfortably good points being made.
For example, one person claimed:
“Agile is like communism, it never works and when it fails the zealots tell you that it is your fault for not doing it right.”
I am not for or against communism but it does seem dodgy to tell people that if agile does not work then it is their fault and that it would work in theory.
I like to think I would never do that and that only “those crazy zealots” would do it…. But I have recently told people “agile is a mindset” and had them ask "how does that help me?"
I told hem that the answer is within and that if they reflect on it long enough then agility will emerge from their meditations and work will flow through the team with a zen-like hum.
But they still seem unimpressed. So rather than saying it is a mindset, a process, a framework or even a thing they should be doing better I sometimes try this approach.
You are not a tool to make agile work. Agile is a tool to help you get your work done. The goal should not be for you to become agile. The goal is for agile practices to be a help you and your team do your work more easily
I don’t really think that is profound but it does align with the manifesto, which says “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”
I think this is quite different from saying “individuals are a bunch of tools who must interact to make agile processes work.” In fact, maybe a better interpretation is to say that agile approaches (processes and tools) should help individuals with their interactions, which will help them better satisfy the customer.
Pondering on this further I started to realise that in many places, people are being pushed to adopt agile – both to do agile things and to be agile.
While it might be good to help others become more agile, it does seem to have the goal the wrong way around. Indeed, some of the of agile transformations I have seen have been disturbingly similar to watching a revolution fail.
I don’t want to be too dramatic but one of the first books I read about self-organising teams had a manifesto in it and had everyone being equal.
It was called 'Animal Farm' and without giving the ending away, it did end fairly badly for most of the animals on the farm. In fact, it even had the famous words:
"All animals are equal but some are more equal than others"
Of course, they did not go as far as forcing most animals to address the elite ones as “master,” but I have heard that in some agile teams “every team member is equal but please call me scrum MASTER.”
Perhaps there is something in that statement that suggests why the rest of the team get sick of being told to become more agile. They hear from someone who is not helping them deliver their work that they are not as good as people who are agile and that they need to change. But eventually people get sick of being lectured at and they go back to doing things the old way since it was working just as well.
So rather than driving people to become more agile, maybe the trick is to find how “agile” can help the team. But help with what?
The answer is quite simple. Start by defining:
Who is in the team; and
What is the team trying to achieve
Once you know that then you can assert that “agile things help the team achieve their goals quickly and easily.”
This might not be true – in which case the team should walk away from agile and try something else. Why should they adopt an approach that makes it harder and slower to get things done?
Hopefully, you can show that agile approaches help improve collaboration (people and interaction, ongoing customer collaboration and stuff), better control of the teams work (stand-ups and things), better clarity of purpose and especially improved learning and validation of assumptions (continuous testing, MVPs, showcases and nearly anything else).
I believe the best thing about agile is that it makes it easier to accomplish goals through better ongoing collaboration and better focus on validated learning. But if that is not what the team needs then maybe I am wrong to champion agile at all.
So in summary:
If the goal is to make people be more agile, they will probably grow tired of you and give up;
If the goal is to help the team become agile, I think you have it backwards and people will eventually find the effort of becoming agile too hard because they have so much other work to do.
The goal should be to find ways that “agile stuff” can help the team to accomplish their goals in a quicker and easier way. In other words to make things easier for them so they can focus on getting their work done with less effort.
If we can not achieve that, then I am honestly not sure why people would want to adopt agile.
On the other hand, if we achieve that – then I think we can get team buy-in.
Posted by James King
Copyright © James King