A Beautiful Stepping Stone
I was asked by Agile Scout to write an article for the State of Agile series. This is my response.
At the end of September I attended the Scrum Beyond Software event in Phoenix, at the wonderful Gangplank facility. This was both the last event I organized while working for the Scrum Alliance, and (to my knowledge) the first full Open Space event set up to explore this topic.
The event was interesting for many reasons, one being that the attendees came from many different backgrounds and identified with different Agile communities, including Scrum, Kanban, XP, Lean or just simply non-denominational Agile. What emerged from this mix of minds and ideas, free from the software development constraint was the truth of similarities over differences. We shared a common vision. For me, it was a realization that too often the buzzwords become prisons — a way to establish a territory, or carve out a market niche, a way to stand still. And I am as guilty as many of building barriers to collaboration across the different splinter movements.
As I reflected on that learning moment over the following weeks, ideas that had been kicking around in my mind for some time became clear. I once thought I knew what Scrum was, but over the past year or two –especially the recent six months– it has become clear to me that the Scrum Alliance and scrum.org understanding of Scrum is greatly different to mine. Given that these organizations between them effectively own Scrum, it is sensible for me to admit that what I do, what I teach isn’t Scrum. It is something else.
I have always found the term “Agile” a little ambiguous. To me it is little more than a manifesto and an annual USA conference. There is a set of principles which offer guidance on software development, but describes no concrete application. XP, Scrum, Kanban etc. offer actual practices. Almost every software company now claims to be “Agile.” The term has grown like a cancer into massive overuse, and thus into meaningless jargon. And of course, by the nature of the manifesto language, Agile itself is rooted in software development. I am interested in exploring and transforming whole organizations, even those that don’t build software at all. Agile is a vaguely useful term, covering a multitude of ideas and practices.
Kanban, the process I always saw as “watered down Scrum” is emerging as a useful way of working when addressing problems in certain areas of an organization, in fact I’ve recently been applying some Kanban concepts in non-project focused work to great effect, e.g. the practice of continuous flow over upfront commitment, and the decoupling of review and retrospective, allowing each to find its own cadence within the given context. The core Kanban practices of visual management and minimized WIP are essential techniques in any context to help create the mindset we are seeking.
Some of the ideas from the Lean movement are useful, but it’s application in the software world seems to mostly be on process improvement and streamlining, with little focus on relationships and collaboration. XP and Software Craftsmanship offer an excellent mindset for building software, but again they are rooted in one small part of the knowledge industry. Highly recommended, but not really transferable to other domains. Many of the Agile methods being used are useful in particular contexts. None is appropriate everywhere.
The important thing to remember is that there is so much more to draw on than the Agile family of methods. There is Improv, Artful Making, CAS, Games Theory, Integral and Coactive Coaching, NLP, Dan Pink’s Motivation 3.0, the work of Ricardo Semler, Seth Godin, <add your favorite writer>, the inspirational ideas from so many TED Talks, and much more. The Agile community, the Agile-rooted ideas are a very small part of a whole movement taking place in the world of knowledge work. We are marching, or perhaps more accurately slipping and sliding towards a new paradigm. Agile is part of a ripple that when combined with other ideas and practices will collectively become a tidal wave of change. I want to get out of the shallows, the safety, and (let’s be honest) the growing stagnation of the Agile community, and ride that wave of change.
One or two of us at the Phoenix event committed to trying to get by without using the terms Agile, Scrum, Kanban, etc. in our writings. Perhaps this article will be the last time I dwell on those terms (they may crop up in passing). For one, it would be lovely to describe what I do in terms that doesn’t cause people to look at me in confusion and say “what does that mean?” I’d like to explore, not explain. I have a desire to seek simplicity of language, as I believe it will lead to simplicity of solution. Lean is an example of a term that sounds like what it does. Software Craftsmanship is another.
My journey forward is one of discovering, embracing, collecting, sifting, sharing, shaping, crafting, and exchanging gifts with fellow travelers.
So how do I see Agile? I see it as one stepping stone (a particularly beautiful one) on a great journey towards a business world that is more caring, loving, respectful and altogether more joyous. Agile will meld into the ideas of many other movements, and we’ll all move forward towards the greater goal, seeking similarities and finding ways to collaborate, innovate and reconceive the way we work.
Tobias Mayer is an organizational change agent, coach and trainer based in Palo Alto, CA with frequent trips to his home town of London for work and pleasure. Every few years he likes to reinvent himself.