This morning, I received a message from an old college friend. As a Product Owner, he presently has a problem with a team distributed on two continents. Seeing in my title that I’m an Agile coach and Scrum.org trainer, he asked me what approach he should adopt in this situation.
This is not unheard-of. In a world where Agility takes a prominent place (Gartner 2008, Forester 2015, State of Agile 2017), people turn to individuals perceived as experts of the field to have ‘ready to use’ answers, a route to guide them from point A to point B safely and with guaranteed results. Web sites and professional forums are full of this type of questioning.
Why reinvent the wheel?
From the youngest age, human beings living in western societies are used to a learning model in which information is conveyed from a person in a position of expertise (parent, babysitter, teacher, expert on the topic, professional, director, etc.) to someone who’s learning. This model applies to most academic and organizational environments and concerns a big part of cognitive development. In parallel, we learn different athletic and artistic skills by empiricism, that is to say by trial and error in order to constantly improve.
When in a difficult situation, our brain which is used to a certain cognitive operating mode will often orientate itself toward predefined mental models. These ‘by default’ models are looking to save our energy. We maintain things the same in known situations, or we look for help around experts in new situations. It’s a natural human reflex when facing uncertainty that is often perceived as dangerous and something to be avoided, or at least, as needing more creative energy and reflection.
In a world that is becoming less and less certain, human beings often try to retrieve this feeling of certainty by looking for recipes to follow, that will allow them to feel safe. And the world is full of people and organizations with the main business objective of answering this need.
Related blog post : Get the most out of your Scrum grinder!
Agility in a Box
Co-creator of Scrum Ken Schwaber frequently presents a powerful image. Imagine someone wearing a suit that enters the office of an organization’s CEO, opens his briefcase and pulls Agility out of it. You would only need to sign the contract, press the Start button and the success of your Agile implementation would be guaranteed.
Despite the absurdity of the image, a reassuring message for the organization, a structured procedure, a guarantee of success and a little bit of material are often enough to give a sense of security facing the future.
The best process wins
If certain teams already use Agility in an organization, it’s not rare to see a search for the best process. Through diverse metrics, Agile or not, we look for the best Agile practice in order to standardize it and make a model to implement on a large scale. After all, it already works in the field, within the organization.
Spotify my Org
Finally, an organization can be tempted to be inspired by organizational recipes that are documented and ready to use, like the Spotify cultural and organizational model. After all, here is an example of a big company that describes what works for her and what she has learned along the way to success.
So why reinvent the wheel?
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
It’s the first value of the Agile manifesto. Its main purpose is to show the place of the individuals on the level of the overall Agile process. In a context where the future is not really predictable — on the technological level or in terms of the users’ needs or even of the people doing the work — implementing a foolproof process or relying on a tool is simply inadequate for the context.
If I want to drink orange juice, my need is very precise. My knowledge of the market allows me to buy one that pleases me, knowing the expected result all too well. If I want to make it, a recipe and a tool will give me the self-assurance to get what I’m looking for. That is where resides the power of best practices, methods and recipes. When your input and output are precise and well-defined (quality, functionality, production process), reinventing the wheel is counter productive. Simply define a production standard (or adopt one that exists on the market) and improve it if needed.
In a world where so many things constantly evolve, the best ally of an individual is his brain and ability to think and constantly adapt to his present situation. If we go to the level of a team, several teams or an organization, it’s the collective brain (the combined intelligence of the individuals forming the ecosystem) that has the power to get the best out of any situation. It’s the heart of self-organization.
Agility is not a method or a recipe, it’s a philosophy that is behind the actions of the individuals in very varied contexts. It’s a way to be that allows someone to decide which way to address a given situation. It’s a promise of a more humane work and of a work result that has more value for the end user.
With now several years of experience behind the Agile movement, many people and organizations have learned through action, which gave more or less positive results. There is a wealth of references and examples where we can look for inspiration. However, we need not to forget one thing : what has worked (or not) somewhere does not guarantee the success (or failure), because all these experiments have been conducted by certain individuals at a precise moment and in a given context.
Of course, the answer that I gave my friend was not the one he expected. But we understood each other on this empiricism that will help him find what works best for him in his context. I shared a few experiences that I had and the results we got with these approaches. However, these examples are only what they are : examples. They do not aim at replacing people’s intelligence and ability to decide what works and what doesn’t.
So experiment, reinvent your wheel with the people around you for the success of Agility in your organization. Live Agility instead of doing it!