I’ve been teaching many sessions of my Leading Toward
the Agile Mindset course recently. Through various
activities, we examine Agile’s many principles, such as
feedback, collaboration, effective before efficient,
simplicity, and getting to “done.” Almost every time,
I’ve noticed, a participant will ask:
“Aren’t these principles just a common-sense way to work?”
I’ve heard this opinion expressed about 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 the world of
work (at least the work of software development) operated
so differently in the last several decades? And why
hasn’t the new “sensible” approach displaced the
previous approach completely?
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 change
that’s worth responding to, and delivering value early
and frequently. Those are their values — what they
consider important. 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 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,
change management, and test-at-the-end.
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 play into the choices
of “work mechanics” — 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;
their values are their guide to 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.
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 preferences and ideas designed for sustainably and
repeatedly delighting your customer. Not “better,
cheaper, faster”, not practices, not tools.
In many organizations,
embracing Agile is truly a transformation because it
differs from their current approach on a fundamental
level, that of values. Therefore, you cannot portray the
destination in any way that implies that what they did
before was wrong. If people believe that the Agile value
system is a better vehicle for achieving their
objectives, they will undergo the transformation
voluntarily, and it’s likely to stick.
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