Agile is a choice that requires a different mindset and not just the use of fantastic buzzwords

Today, everyone seems to be saying “we have to become more agile”. With COVID-19 out there it seems the term is becoming inflationary…more than ever. The label is being attached to everything – agile methodology, agile sales, agile marketing, agile strategy and the list goes on and on. But what does agile mean? Why is it important? And, why did I choose years ago to live by it?

If we talk about agile we need to go back in time…practically 20 years back…or even more? At that time, in 2001, 17 thought leaders of software development met to talk about how to improve software development, being tired of the heavy and rigid project management methodologies known at that time. They wanted to come up with something easier, more adaptable and more close to development and customers. They had all been working for some years with what was called lightweight methods like eXtreme Programming born in 1996 (Kent Beck), Crystal born in 1991 (Alistair Cockburn) and Scrum which in fact, was directly modelled after “The New New Product Development Game” by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka published in the Harvard Business Review in 1986. Fun fact: both Takeuchi and Nonaka said years later that Scrum was indirectly related to software but more directly related to leadership and project management in all its aspects. In 1993, Jeff Sutherland conducted the first Scrum project and together with Ken Schwaber, developed the Scrum process in 1995.

When these 17 thought leaders (in the midst of them were Beck, Cockburn and Sutherland) met and talked about their common values, they also discussed possible tag words for their movement. Guess what won…”Agile”. So they produced what the world know todays as the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”. In it, the 17 wrote up their declaration of values and principles. Agile is the ability to create and respond to change. It is THE way of succeeding in, an uncertain and turbulent environment, other words the VUCA world. See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/overcoming-social-distancing-through-agile-methods-times-schimmel/. The 17 chose “Agile” as the label for this whole idea because that word represented the adaptiveness and response to change which was so important to their approach. Today more than ever everyone should be applying agile methods. It is all about thinking through how you can understand what is going on in the environment that you are in today, identifying what uncertainties there are, and find out how you can adapt to those as you go along.

Why did I really chose Agile as a way to work and live? While the 17 wrote 12 principles in the Agile Manifesto, there are 3 that got to the bottom of my heart. Without diminishing the value and significance of the others, here they are…

“Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage”

If you thought change is something new or has only become relevant in recent years then perhaps consider the followingquote from Heraclitus who lived from 535 BC to 475 BC: 

“Nothing endures but change.”

The reality is that change is inevitable and it has always been there. The only thing is, that the cycles in which change happens are more often and come with more force than before. Agile processes encourage decision making in shorter time frames, shorten development cycles and support just-in-time analysis of changes and requests. This allows agile teams to change quickly and at low cost, reducing the risk of literally loosing money on a track that is possibly doomed to fail, but would not have been spotted early enough. That provides competitive advantage and is one of the keys to agile ways of working. The constant “touch base” with your customer by presenting in shorter time cycles the next evolution of your product or service is just an energising experience for me and the team. Some people tend to have a problem with changes introduced by the customer. It is as if they would be annoyed by the paying customer!!! Really? There is nothing more fascinating that having the opportunity to discuss with your customer your progress and see what recommendations and possible new ideas might come up from the review. That way I personally think that over time you get a product or service, that has more added value, than the one you might have developed after years of development without getting your customers insight.

“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Nothing will replace a good old chat. The most effective way of getting information is speaking with a person. That way you not only get the information you require, you are also able to react in time and get a reaction as well. Afterwards, you can send any amount of emails you want or need to make sure that the proper amount of data is shared. 

But…somehow…I have the impression that email is considered the most popular communication tool today. Here is the news, email is not a communication tool. It is a tool for distributing information. An email might be considered efficient for the sender – after all, he or she can hit send and physically burst information to as many people as he/she wants at once. If you send me an email, you are not communicating with me, you are either sending information to me, or asking information from me. In order to communicate you have to sense the other party. As long as that is not there, you are not communicating. The beauty about agile, is that communication is in the middle of its philosophy. Within the team, with the customer and with all stakeholders. It is imperative to get people together. If face to face is not possible, use the highest bandwidth form of communication that is available for you. That might turn out to be video conference on Zoom, Teams, Webex, Jitsi or even a conference call will be better than email. 

And yes, the best way to get the information you need, is to talk personally with the information holders. All of this means that the closer you are to an iteration in your project, the more information your team will have regarding the work packages you will need to plan the next iteration. 

If the teams I have worked with would talk to us right now, they would say, “Yes, Erich always said, go to your colleague and talk to him/her or grab the phone a make the call.” Communication is key and agile methods have put it in the middle of it. I simply love it.

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.”

There is such a fantastic expression in German that describes what happens on a daily basis everywhere. It’s something called “der innere Schweinehund”, 

literally translated as the “inner pig dog”. The innerer Schweinehund is the voice inside your head which leads you to choosing not to do what you should be doing. Basically, the “inner pig dog” leads you to spend your time with lazy pleasures.

Well, agile just ensures that the “inner pig dog” does not get the chance to take over yourself. The philosophy of committing to the work packages the team has agreed for the next sprint is practically a binding contract between you and your team. This combined with short iterations of 2 weeks, which are the ones I personally prefer, makes sure that you and not your “inner pig dog” wins the battle. By having a review of the work done during the sprint with the whole team at the end of each sprint and then after that, a retrospective to analyse how the team worked together (what was good, what wasn’t and how can work be improved) you really do get a kick out of what you see was achieved. No, really, the effect on people is just amazing. But beware, if you start skipping the reviews and retrospectives, the “INNER PIG DOG” will bite you hard!!!

Just remember: 

“The important thing is not your process. The important thing is your process for improving your process” – Henrik Kniberg

So those are my personal favourites, do you have your own? Have a look at the Agile Manifesto principles at http://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html and share your comments. Maybe next time I can share my second favourite bunch of principles.

We at 3E believe that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE AND SYSTEMS should be in sync in order for you to be successful. We believe that agile methodologies at every level of an organisation are the answer to cope with the disruptive elements around the world because they minimise risks, they reduce costs, they are flexible and can adapt to new developments at every time, and they increase the delivery speed or time to market.