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Jim Benson


The Soul of Agile

Sixteen elements of responsible development

Published: Monday, February 25, 2019 - 13:03

A few years ago, I received a call from a very frustrated vice president of development in the Midwest. He sent his staff to get trained in Scrum. He thought he was sending his team off to learn how to develop software. Instead, they came back scrumbroken.

The team spun in circles arguing about their stand-up meetings, trying to wrap their heads around the arcane notion of Fibonacci-based pseudo-planning, how best to set fire to their documentation, and so on.

None of them came back ready to jump into work. They had to deploy all the processes and tools, there was no time for individuals or how they might interact.

“They are all arguing about what agile is,” said the vice president. “It’s like they all went to different classes.” His pain was evident over the phone. “Is it possible for you to come in and kind of teach them how to actually work? Or maybe what agile is?”

In this video, I discuss the 16 points I sent him in the memo below. These, for me, are 16 Elements of the Soul of Agile. Yes, you can come up with others. If you do, that’s good! Keep doing that. This list is not the end of the conversation.

Hey (Name withheld to protect the innocent),

I’m sorry you went through the machine. Agile should be about people figuring out the best ways for the teams, the customers, and the value to come together and solve problems. Mass trainings, like the one your people went to, tend to focus more on one generic and context-insensitive way of working. Some of the ideas are probably good, but they get lost in the volume and firehose of rapid, commodity training.

Let’s see if we can pick and choose from the lengthy (sorry) menu below and get them focused more on (your company) than on someone’s idea of how everything should be run.

Agile reprogramming

Because Agile isn’t supposed to hurt

1 What agile is

1.1 Communication: You want to talk more with colleagues and customers. Not every so often. Not through proxies. Direct, real, high-value communication.

1.2 Understanding: You want to understand your work. If we don’t understand it, we can’t improve it or even do it. We cannot understand our work if we are overloaded.

1.3 Sustainable pace: This is a sustainable amount of work, not necessarily iterations. Sustainable work is within our capacity to deliver. This requires knowing what your capacity is. You cannot know real capacity without measuring it with real metrics.

1.4 Responding to change: You respond to change in real time, not in increments. You respond to change by understanding what change actually looks like. Change is when reality does not jibe with expectations. If expectations are not documented or explicitly shared between team members, there is no change—only internal strife as team members lumber along blaming management and each other for the state of product.

1.5 Writing clean code: Documentation and readability are important. Working with your team is important. Assuming someone will implement your code and that someone else will maintain it is responsible coding. (Rogue is not agile). Clean code is respect for the craft, the team, and the end product.

1.6 Solving problems: Solving problems requires real collaboration with people outside your team and outside IT. You might have to talk to real people from time to time. If you solve problems only within your team, you have solved your idea of the problem, but not the problem itself.

1.7 Building your own process: You observe the way your work is produced. You don’t get it from a box. You, your client, your team, your company, your partners, and your product define how you will plan, select work, learn, communicate, and produce.

1.8 Working with your customers: Seriously, work with them, not for them, not isolated from them, and certainly not against them. Collaborate. Communicate in real time. Let them get builds in real time. Make decisions with them. Break down the silos between the team and the customer.

1.9 Knowable metrics: Actual statistical measures to help facilitate planning and real-time work selection. This is not only possible, it’s simple. Without knowable metrics, we cannot effectively plan, communicate, or complete.

1.10 Real-time release: Creating real software is now a real-time business.

1.11 Inspect and adapt: How can we really do this? Not just review and rehash. Not become even more Scrummy. We must know our work, understand our direction, understand the market, understand our team composition, and adjust when we sense imbalance.

1.12 Role definition: Teams have roles. What are yours? A group of individual contributors is a group, not a team. Your work requires specific processing. That might change during the course of the project, but it does. There is no one set of roles.

1.13 Planning: Plans are documents that force behavior. Planning is awareness. Planning is responsibly steering the project as it progresses, and the team learns more about what its best potential for success is.

1.14 Collaboration: DevOps and Pairing are the same thing. We want to form groups with appropriate skill sets to do the best job possible, create robust solutions, and intentionally learn in the process.

1.15 Learning and feedback: Iterations are a type of loop, but not the only type. Learning and feedback are important. Single, double, triple loop—we want a system that lets us learn and doesn’t overload us, so we forget.

1.16 Living in the real world: We have customers, regulators, and other external factors that influence how we work and what we do. Sometimes these requirements are annoying and inconvenient. We can choose to ignore them but doing so may put ourselves or our companies in peril. Dealing with operational imperatives elegantly is agile.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

A pioneer in applying lean and kanban to knowledge work, and an internationally recognized speaker and writer, Jim Benson is CEO of the collaborative management consultancy Modus Cooperandi. He is a fellow in the Lean Systems Society and recipient of the Brickell Key Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, 2012. He is the creator of Personal Kanban and co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2011) and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013).


Agile Isn't Just For Software Any More

Agile is scaling up in corporations. It's being applied to everything from marketing to HR to production.

Agile can easily be mapped from software to Lean Six Sigma.

Download my Agile Lean Six Sigma Mini-Manifesto here.

Watch my video about Agile Lean Six Sigma here.

20th Century Quality was about manufacturing. 21st Century Quality is about services which are over 80% of U.S. employment. Agile Lean Six Sigma is ideally suited to service industries.