Agile Just Makes Sense… Why Don’t They Get It?!

In my courses, I use various activities to examine and drive home Agile’s many principles. Ones that usually trigger deep conversations include getting to “done,” feedback, collaboration, and effectiveness before efficiency. Many senior managers attend my courses, and almost every time, one of them will ask:

“Aren’t these principles just a common-sense way to work?”

I often hear the sentiment applied to popular Agile practices too. For instance, doesn’t it make sense to demo finished work to stakeholders? Meet your teammates every day for micro-planning? Capture work items from the perspective of the customer, and process them in descending order of value?

If all this is indeed common sense, why has much of the world of work – at least the work of software development – operated differently in the last several decades? In fact, why hasn’t the new “sensible” approach displaced the previous approach completely?

Common sense is not so common

The answer has to do with our value systems. Do you know the saying attributed to Voltaire, “Common sense is not so common”? There’s truth to it, and the truth is that what passes for right or sensible is not absolute; it’s derived from what we value — what’s important to us.

Why do some people (Agile practitioners) base their methods on such principles as feedback, learning, continuous improvement, minimizing the cost of change, and continuous quality? It’s because they care about collaborating with their customer, responding to worthwhile change, and delivering value frequently. Those are their values — what they consider important, what they take a stand for. When you care deeply about delighting your customer, the above principles clearly make sense. And from those principles, you’re likely to derive such practices as frequent demos, refactoring, and continuous planning.

By contrast, why do other people (such as Waterfall practitioners and classically trained managers) base their methods on such principles as “plan the work and work the plan,” maximizing worker utilization, hand-offs, and hub-and-spokes team structures? It’s because they care about making early commitments of scope/cost/schedule, meeting those commitments, and getting the deliverable right the first time. When these are your work values, the above principles clearly make sense. From those principles, certain practices follow naturally: detailed upfront planning, precise estimates, percent complete, change management, and test-at-the-end.

People hold different values

Many Agile implementations hit the wall because not everybody adjusts their value systems to align with the Agile one. In other words, the people involved care about fundamentally different things. Those differences rarely come up in conversations, but they manifest themselves in the chosen moves and mechanics of work — sprints, Gantts, backlogs, requirements, test plans, etc. Expecting everyone to agree with certain mechanics “because they make sense” is not a workable strategy, since those who hold non-Agile values truly think they don’t make sense. Presenting Agile as the new or better way doesn’t help either, because people like to think their values are right. People’s values run deep; they are an internal compass, a guide for success.

Different people have different personalities and preferences. But when it comes to work, shouldn’t colleagues (who share objectives) care about the same things? In healthy organizational cultures, they do. In other cultures, and in those undergoing a transformation, there will be differences. Often, people’s value systems will be shaped by what their managers, and the organization, reward and punish.

Value alignment is key to transformation success

If you’re interested in helping a group of people change their value system to the Agile one, start with education to build awareness. Help them understand that Agile is a set of human-centric preferences and ideas designed for sustainably and repeatedly delighting the customer. Dispel the myths that Agile is a vehicle for “better, cheaper, faster”, a set of practices, a process for techies, or a methodology.

In many organizations, people who embrace Agile truly experience a transformation because it differs from their current approach on a fundamental level, that of values. Be patient and empathetic; avoid portraying the destination in any way that implies that what they did before was wrong. Help people decide for themselves whether the Agile value system is a better means for achieving their objectives. This way, they will undergo the transformation voluntarily, and it’s likely to stick.

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