The recent Agile Africa conference, held in Johannesburg, highlighted a root cause I have often seen evidenced – this thing “Agile” is not in fact “a thing”, it’s an adverb, not a noun or verb. It’s not a set of steps you can learn and follow like a recipe. It’s not driven by a tool. To receive the benefits of agility in software delivery, it’s the principles that matter. As a community, I think we have not adequately covered this why element when introducing agile concepts to new ears. Too few “agile practitioners” really understand the principle they are trying to achieve when, for example, they ask teams to stand at a board for 15 minutes every day.
Given this, it was refreshing to be part of a conference where the principles were top of mind. In track 3 at Agile Africa, a space where delegates could come and discuss issues without a fixed agenda, conversations covered things like why business analysts stick to their translation role so much when translation can be null and void in an effective cross-functional team. Interestingly, effective analysis as a foundation for success was discussed as a principle mindset issue on the track 2 agenda. Delegates grappled with the lack of skilled resources in South Africa and came to the conclusion that if we give people an opportunity to fail fast and cheap, we can nurture the talent we have. Especially if we count that process as successful, regardless of the small delivery batch that didn’t work so well. This again highlights the principle of effective feedback on the smallest possible batch, to produce a better result the next time.
What has really stuck with me two months after the conference was the talk on flow mindset, an insight into the way people think when they fully understand the agility principles, and they allow those principles to drive their speech and actions. I say this because changing minds is no easy thing and nothing reflects a person’s mindset better than the words they use. I believe this is why the Agile community has fallen into the trap of teaching practice above all else – following a defined set of guidelines to the letter forms habitual behaviour, which is what we are looking for in the end. But addressing this level alone does not give us the real value that Agile development has promised. Aligned values engage our hearts and our will, and fully understood principles give our minds the critical why that drive us to change our behaviours. When the going gets tough, old habits and the words that go with them will kick in, unless we honestly believe they are not constructive, and we consciously force ourselves to follow a new path. To quote a conference phrase, “Agile without values is without value”.
Perhaps that’s why I am sometimes met with such aggression when I talk about this concept we call “Agile”. Some clients have dabbled in practices under this banner but have not been through an effective change journey at all. When the going got tough, they reverted to doing things the way they’d always been done, yet expectations of faster value had already been raised, so everyone was worse off.
I am empathetic. The principle matter for me over the next 6 months is to try to avoid this trap and elevate the principles and the values to the level they deserve.