The Breadth of Agile

November 7, 2013

As I thought about the model in Figure 2-1 from my last post, I adapted it to make something else more explicit when talking about agile development and setting agile expectations. This speaks to the breadth of agile as opposed to its depth.

I observed that the bottom three layers are more timeless than the top layer. Specific frameworks are implementations of agile; practices and techniques may change over time while the values, principles, and characteristics are qualities that will stand the test of time. So I lopped the top layer off. This provides us with a deep, rich set of agile qualities that comprise a common core.

And while these agile qualities comprise a common core, they will be realized in different ways at a personal, team and organizational level. And these elements are all interrelated, as Figure 2-2 depicts:

Figure 2-2

Now we have a little more to explore as we consider the previous learning example. Agile is now being implemented broadly, giving us depth and breadth. Let’s start with personal agility.

For any learning and change – real change – to take place you need to believe that you are capable of learning and adapting. You need qualities such as curiosity and a willingness to experiment and to be adaptive. And since we are talking about team learning with agile development, being collaborative is also a helpful quality to develop.

As an individual embracing personal agility you need to support the notion of continuous improvement and that your own qualities and that of your team are things that can be cultivated. This is the orientation of someone who has a growth mindset (Carol Dweck, 2006). Another type of mindset is what is called a fixed mindset, where you believe that your qualities are carved in stone and that there is little that can be done to change them.

People with a growth mindset are open to accurate information and focus on doing their best. Giving their all and encountering a setback is motivating to individuals with a growth mindset because of what they learn from the experience. They don’t dwell on failures and kick themselves repeatedly over mistakes. People with a growth mindset reflect realistically on their experiences and are open to receiving honest feedback from others in order to improve.

Consider how the two mindsets and qualities they embody play into team learning. If an agile team is comprised of individuals who are predominantly oriented towards a fixed mindset, how much improvement is likely?

Just being aware of these mindsets can help you consider your own reactions to work and learning situations so that you don’t judge yourself too harshly. And with some practice and effort, you can change your orientation towards a growth mindset. Experiment, it’s a real eye-opener!

If you want to learn more about these two mindsets, I urge you to read Dr. Carol Dweck’s book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

At a team level, we need these core qualities and more. We need the willingness and ability to use respectful interactions. We need to have the desire, courage, willingness and ability to reflect on our current situation, examine habits, behaviors, structures and policies in constructive ways with our teammates.

The use of other characteristics of learning organizations such as shared mental models and systems thinking come into play here. We need to share what we believe and what we are thinking in ways that we driving a robust discussion without it becoming personal. For example, saying, “That’s a dumb idea,” doesn’t get you where you need to be, whereas asking, “How did you arrive at that thought?” invites people into a dialog where you can explore perspectives.

When you ask the question, be genuinely interested in the answer! Someone else may have a strong opinion that differs from yours. This is a good thing. Productive workplaces are filled with people who have strong opinions.

Good group decisions come about because people contribute their thoughts and ideas and there is honest, open dialog. This isn’t about reaching a compromise that no one likes. It is about keeping an open mind and rigorously exploring alternatives – and that is what you want, options that may not have occurred to you.

Learning must be also supported at the organizational level. Does your organization mandate a specific approach and practices? Can teams experiment and choose to stop doing some things and start doing others on their own, without having to seek permission and/or jump through hoops to obtain that permission?

If the expectation of individuals and teams is to conform – or the effort required to obtain permission to try something new is simply too great – then learning will be impacted. In an agile organization there should be an expectation that experimentation is desired and clearly supported by an environment where knowledge can spread laterally and liberally.

The trick is to accomplish this while limiting risk. Changing only one thing at a time using short cycles is a disciplined approach used by agile development to constrain risk.

At an organizational level we want to enable our valuable knowledge workers to share their experiments and experiences. You may be thinking that this is the goal of having best practices that are captured and disseminated, but the dynamics are different.

For a start, what is “best” in a continuous learning environment? In an agile, learning organization we don’t want to prescribe all aspects of the job with the idea that if teams copy what is deemed “best” by a centralized, controlling authority, that they too, will be successful. This brings us back to creating an expectation of compliance and conformity and discourages informed experimentation that leads to improvement.

In an agile organization we want to increase the improvement capability of our people (Rother, 2010). We need to encourage and coach people to be mining for new ideas and critically examining their work with the goal of building a deeper understanding of what it takes to make meaningful improvements.

Lightweight Standardization
You may become uncomfortable with agile when you first learn about the mechanics of agile development. It appears very loose when compared to the crisp, well-defined, everything-is-accounted-for standardized work processes of most organizations. You may feel that you need to have robust, well-defined work processes, otherwise you would have complete chaos. The challenge is really one of standardizing software development activities without overly constraining people and teams.

Scrum is a great example to use to meet this challenge. It is an agile product development framework that prescribes key roles, events, artifacts and rules to guide teams in managing their product development activities without being an end-to-end, locked-down process.

The strength of Scrum is that it standardizes key aspects of product development activities while providing the flexibility for teams to choose the tools and technical practices to increase their agility and manage variability as it is encountered. Scrum provides “just enough” guidance to collaborative product development teams, including support for improving the product and improving team performance. (I’ll cover more on Scrum in future chapters).

All of this boils down to one expectation: Agility isn’t a process. It is set of beliefs and behaviors – a mindset – implemented through specific frameworks and practices that must be supported by everyone in the organization. This brings us to the primary expectation that you should have concerning agile development:

The benefits of agile are realized from working differently. And for some organizations, agile may be a very different way of operating.

Next post: Then Benefits of Change

This post is a draft of content intended for an upcoming ebook: Agile Expectations: What to Expect from Agile Development, and Why. Blog posts will be organized under the “Agile Expectations” content on the left-hand side for easy reference. I welcome your comments and feedback! – Dave Moran

Carol Dweck, P. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.

Rother, M. (2010). Toyota Kata : Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. McGraw-Hill Companies.

Senge, P. M. (1990, 2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Doubleday.