When I was introduced to Agile, I was drawn to it and frustrated by it. But once I saw it leak into other areas of my life, I knew I was hooked. The longer I have spent on my Agile journey, the more I understand how much it has helped me learn and grow.
“I don’t think I can take it anymore. We need to move.”
Now that my Agile Coaching job had moved downtown, I was tired of spending so many hours on the road in traffic. So, when I arrived at our country home after another frustrating evening commute, I unceremoniously blurted this out with a sense of finality. Thankfully, my wife responded with a graceful invitation, “Let’s talk through the possibilities.” And we embarked on a collaborative process of exploring the options and challenges.
A few months later, before we began unpacking at our new house, my wife asked, “Could we pull out that Kanban board we used when we were packing? It was so helpful.” And that’s when it hit me: Agile leaked into my life.
I realized that we had used small batches, regularly re-prioritized our activities, visualized our work process, repeatedly inspected and adapted requirements for our next house, and maintained a sustainable pace throughout. Moving was still hard, though it had also been survivable, collaborative, and more valuable.
There was no turning back. I had invited Agile to jump the chasm from work into other aspects of my life. Like an acquaintance that I had politely entertained in my living room, we were now deep friends, eating together out of the fridge.
Agile has challenged and pushed me to grow in ways I never could have imagined. Most importantly, it has helped me to live in the tension of balance. While I would prefer everything be simple and clear, the challenge of complexity requires a stronger and more resilient approach that Agile has helped me step into instead of running away from.
The values and principles in the Manifesto ignited my quest to find this balance.
I remember reading the Manifesto as I was joining my first Agile team, desperately trying to bend my mind around it. It was powerful, inspiring — and completely unclear. “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation” isn’t enough! How do we gather requirements? How do we know who to work with? How are we supposed to communicate when we will release the product?
In time, I realized that the lack of specifics was not a weakness, it was a tremendous strength. This was much more than a new set of rules or tools; I was being invited to re-train my thinking so I could discover more valuable ways of approaching the challenges of software development. While this was a scary proposition filled with the possibility of failure, I faced it head-on and found that the empowerment to learn the best approaches in context was worth the risk.
I also realized that I could get lost in thinking about principles, chewing on nearly-theological constructs about the meaning of ideological phrases. I recently proclaimed to my wife, “If someone would pay me just to think all day, I’d love it!!” And yet, this by itself is not how we find our way to deliver valuable products.
But this is not an either-or situation. We cannot have only practices, nor only values and principles. We need to balance both to be successful.
Whenever I’m teaching leaders about agility, we inevitably end up talking about culture. In culture change, there is a somewhat puzzling connection between values, principles, and practices. When used for their own sake, practices are paper-thin in complex circumstances, failing to provide sustainable results. Likewise, if values are touted only in posters, and principles are just debated in lunchroom conversations, they have very little effect on behaviors. On the other hand, when practices are used as a bridge for people to experience values and begin implementing principles, they are a powerful force for change. Finding balance pays off.
When my two boys were young, I would increasingly explain why we did certain things or had limits in place, hoping to train their thinking so they could handle increasing freedom with responsibility. Now that they are nearing adulthood and have more and more decisions to make on their own, we’re having conversations about the principles underlying their situations and what they’re learning from their experiences. I cannot expect that they will adopt our rules for the rest of their lives. Instead, our household practices were the training ground for them to experience our values and principles. And now they are increasingly espousing their own practices that walk out their values and principles.
The concepts of preparation and action likewise defy a simple answer and require us to find a balance in tension.
I come from a long line of over-preparing perfectionists. As an Eagle Scout, I probably took the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” a little too literally! If I can identify and address every single problem before I begin, that would be better, right? Sometimes, yes. And in other situations, that sentence doesn’t even compile.
Years before joining that first Agile team, I became a Business Analyst. While there was much that was healthy and helpful about this, in retrospect I can see that I was also trying to satisfy my desire to get everything perfectly prepared before anyone developed any software. My brain nearly imploded when I was confronted with the principle, “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.”
Often, I help teams find balance as they prepare backlog items to be developed through investigation, conversation, and planning. Too little refinement usually results in painful volatility during development and failure to deliver. However, too much refinement produces waste that can be more subtle and comfortable – over-engineering, lack of creativity, lost engagement from developers, and an emotional attachment to the plan instead of the valuable outcome desired.
When we optimize for a high degree of certainty, we will invest more in preparation. When we embrace the reality of our uncertainty and optimize for learning, we will invest only as much in preparation as is needed to act, for that is where we learn the most. And that is the pathway to value in complex and uncertain circumstances.
For me, there is a lot wrapped up in this. My old habits of over-preparation often leave me frozen in place, anxious about whether I have prepared “enough” (a standard I rarely reach). If I strive to optimize for learning in order to provide the most value I need to be willing to take action earlier, seek out challenging feedback, celebrate what I have learned, and dust myself off to try again. I’m learning to balance these things as I lead my team of Agilists, teach classes for clients, facilitate sessions with a non-profit, lead worship at church and even teach my son how to drive. Each situation is different, with a different balance of preparation and action needed to be successful.
A more recent re-balancing has been with teams and individuals. As soon as I experienced the amazing value that an Agile team produced, I was sold. “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” I couldn’t have agreed more!
As I transitioned into Scrum Master roles and later into Agile Coaching, I constantly extolled the necessity and benefits of teams. I still view teams as a critical, core component of effective organizations; they are the creative force that produces innovative solutions which would not emerge any other way.
As it turns out, teams are made of individuals.
That probably seems self-evident, but the impact of this reality didn’t sink in until I reconsidered working agreements. In my mind, these were agreements about how the team was collectively going to act in a consistent way. As I was talking with a good friend about our challenges with team working agreements, I realized how narrow my view was. I had only focused on consistency across the team, and it wasn’t helping individuals bring themselves fully to their teams. In order to be a healthy and resilient team, we need to agree on our consistent behavior expectations and the areas we encourage diverse behavior.
Perhaps my initial over-exuberance for teams is understandable. I was likely trying to influence the processes, rewards, and systems that have traditionally been oriented toward individuals and, therefore, tear at the fabric of teams. But over-indexing on teams is ultimately unhelpful.
I’ve found that a better approach is to have the challenging conversations necessary to seek out and maintain balance. How do we support individuals in their career aspirations while enabling teams in their autonomy? How do we enable team members to make respectful requests of teammates and the organization? What are the boundaries of teaming that will appropriately protect individual approaches and styles? What additional benefits would we find by encouraging more diverse perspectives in our work?
When individuals show up fully to their team and that team is focused on a common goal, the sky’s the limit.
The longer I am on my Agile journey, the more places I see Agile has leaked into my life. It seems this has been true in the broader world as well. What was conceived in software development has spilled into HR, marketing, and distributed race car manufacturing. Principles that added value with co-located teams have jumped the gap to geographically dispersed teams. Collaborative practices that resulted in higher value products are finding their way into change management frameworks, government activities, and organizational structures worldwide.
The more we become aware of the complexity of our companies, lives, and world, the more we need to balance principles with practices, preparation with action, and teams with individuals. This is how we invite Agile to leak into places we never could have imagined.
I know I am better for it. And my wife and I will be ready for the next time we pack up and move.
I am Mark Wavle and these are my agile-thoughts
2021 © Cincinnati, Ohio, USA by Mark Wavle
I love humans, especially my wife of 25 years and my two kids. I love music, especially making worship music. I love talking and walking with God. And I love what I get to do – coaching, mentoring, and teaching.