What is Agile? Part Two

July 31, 2013

In last week's post I outlined some thoughts on how agile development parallels Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (JKD). This week, I’ll conclude my thoughts, beginning with how Bruce Lee created confusion with JKD.

The Confusion Factor
Martial arts styles tend to emphasize one type of combat, such as kicking and punching in Karate or grappling in Judo. However, when it came to Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee was adamant that he hadn’t created a new style. He hoped, he said, “…to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.” (Bruce Lee in Liberate Yourself From Classical Karate, September, 1971, Black Belt Magazine)

Think about that for a moment. If Jeet Kune Do wasn’t a style, what was it? What exactly would you expect to learn? And how did Lee going about freeing people from the limitations of existing styles? How does this relate to agile?

Well, I tipped my hand at the beginning of last week’s post: JKD is a system for change.

JKD and Agile: A System for Change
Lee wanted people to avoid blindly adopting techniques because someone else said that they were good. Lee stressed evaluating how and why techniques worked, understanding when they should be applied and whether a given technique would work well for you. As such, Jeet Kune Do was a more of system or conceptual framework useful for evaluating and effectively applying a range of techniques as opposed to being a prescriptive style.

When it comes to software development, we – like Lee – need to continually explore, evaluate and learn, to look more deeply at what needs to be done, what works most effectively, and why.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Experienced coaches will tell you that agile looks different in every organization, and Lee recognized that every martial arts practitioner is different. Lee felt that people should interpret and evaluate techniques for themselves, adapting the techniques as necessary to meet their own circumstances.

He did have one caveat: those decisions should have a strong basis in reality. When it comes to being agile, we need to focus on the same things that Bruce Lee did: the qualities of ourselves and our people, understanding what works and why, to study and discern what is truly essential and valuable, stripping away the inessentials. And above all, we need to continue to learn, reflect and grow from this process, something else Lee stressed with his system.

It took a while for Bruce Lee’s ideas to take root and spread, but their applicability became evident as martial artists experienced reality-based fighting conditions such as full-contact karate, kickboxing matches and – more recently – mixed martial arts competitions. In both martial arts and software development, reality proves or disproves the effectiveness of any approach.

At this point in time we have obtained plenty of real-world experience and feedback that agile is up to today’s challenges. Like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, agile can be both a catalyst and a system for change.

As we continue to move forward, agile can become the new normal because it is not a rigid, prescriptive normal. It offers the rapid execution, flexibility and the room to experiment and improve that organizations desperately need in today’s turbulent business climate. When it executed to its fullest potential, agile allows organizations to be lean, productive, highly adaptive, true learning organizations that are grounded in the realities of the situation at hand.

What We Need to Watch for In the Future
One final point worth noting is that as the use of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do spread over time(after his untimely death), Lee’s original chiseling away of the inessentials gave way to the excessive adding of techniques to it. Why? Because the goalposts shifted in response to pressure from other practitioners about the validity and viability of Jeet Kune Do. The goal of Jeet Kune Do transformed into one of always having the correct counter for any given attack. (As Jerry Beasley relates in his book, Way Of No Way: Solving The Jeet Kune Do Riddle )

You can imagine what happened. Jeet Kune Do began deviating from being a system to guide others in their martial arts journey and morphed into a grab-bag of techniques, resulting in the incorporation of a huge array of techniques in order to have an answer for any situation. This diluted Jeet Kune Do’s effectiveness as a system and created even greater confusion about Jeet Kune Do.

Agile doesn’t have to be a grab-bag with prescriptive responses to every situation. What we really need to do is stay true to the values and principles of being agile (and lean, and learning organizations). We can share knowledge about what works and why so that people have access to techniques that they can evaluate for use in their unique circumstances. And we need to remember that we may need to discard certain practices and techniques as well.