The Vanity Practices and Tools of Agility

The Agile mindset isn’t optional to succeed the Agile transformation; it’s MANDATORY. The Agile mindset is a prerequisite for triggering any ounce of the transformation in the organization. That’s why companies that don’t succeed in switching to an Agile mindset, staying in the old managerial scheme, cultivating the status quo, promoting command and control over collaboration and autonomy are vowed to fail. They don’t really try to deploy an Agile transformation, they just impose practices because it seems that other companies do so, because these practices become standard of the industry. But actually, there isn’t any conviction. As Gunther Verheyen showed recently, all Agile efforts that these companies conduct are vowed to death because they are not backed up by a true desire of change. They are just supported by vanity practices that don’t stand the pass of time

all Agile efforts that these companies conduct are vowed to death because they are not backed up by a true desire of change. They are just supported by vanity practices that don’t stand the pass of time

Whether it is for deploying Agility or for any other worthy endeavors, the mindset drives everything and determines success. In his 2007 bestseller book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, Carol Dweck already showed us that mindset is paramount for achieving progress in life. The mindset is the engine that guarantees we are willing to put in the necessary work, effort, focus, hours and dedication to succeed. Motivation comes with focus, perseverance, interest, repetition, and habits. And in face of boredom and adversity, only the growth mindset is able to push us to sustain the effort and to maintain the motivation.

Actually, Agile practices produce no effect when not supported by the mindset. They just become a dogmatic and unmastered approach dedicated to ending as the Cargo Cult Agilesyndrome. Practices and tools have nearly nothing to do with the success of an Agile transformation; if not supported by a strong mindset, their utilization inevitably leads to demotivation. It’s like giving a child a toy he doesn’t want to play with. Children play with toys because they are ways to entertain themselves, to discover, to grow. They don’t play with it for the vanity of having a toy. Toys are not an end in itself for children, they deserve an ambition: to be entertained, and ultimately joyful. In many cases, children don’t even need one to play. They naturally have the mindset of play and create powerful games by the sole force of their imagination. Their openness and curiosity allow them to always explore and discover new things, and they don’t need specific tools or practices for that.

When we use agile practices or tools only for the sake of it, it is vanity. Acting this way, our actions don’t foster any true ambition. Tools and practices usage just becomes an end in itself, generating only wasted time and resources.

When we use agile practices or tools only for the sake of it, it is vanity

In the same manner, iterations, inspection, and adaptation are only valuable when adopted in conjunction with an Agile mindset. Short iterations and its rituals are worth doing only when individuals understand the power behind Agility and are eager to spend their time relentlessly improving their way of working. When they are there, they got the Agile mindset.

It’s not enough that management commit themselves to quality and productivity, they must know what it is they must do.” said Deming decades ago. And well before him, Descartes in the introduction of the Discourse of Method said: “Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world […] it is not enough to have a good mind, but the key is to apply it well”.

Management must exemplify the change they want to see. They must internalize the Agile mindset and identify the right way of doing things. This requires a concrete effort; management must deeply learn and understand values and principles behind Agility. It’s not enough to merely understand practices and tools, management must put in the effort of training themselves to Agility if they want to exceed the level of pure vanity in the process of Agile transformation.

In the end, true cultural shift only comes with the adoption of a clear and determined mindset which triggers specific and targeted actions, practices, and methods that massively activate changes and challenge the status quo. It is the accumulation of knowledge and beliefs that initiate this movement, not superficial learning of some tips and tricks that we put the “agile practices” name on. Actually, we can’t commit to a cultural shift, we can only promote and cultivate its occurrence by learning and understanding the values behind it.

It is the accumulation of knowledge and beliefs that initiate this movement, not superficial learning of some tips and tricks that we put the “agile practices” name on.

What appears frustrating for those who believe in Agility is that it cannot be “mandated”. Agility is not a turnkey solution. Nothing worth comes easy, and that’s very true for Agility. The end result of a successful Agile transformation is a cultural shift, but it is the destination of a long and hard path, the result of a long introspection, a willingness to go outside the comfort zone, to challenge the status quo and to endure the hard pain of transformation.

Culture is not something that can be imposed. It’s as if we’d say that Basque or Corsican culture has been imposed at a certain point in time and that from that moment it hasn’t evolved. That’s wrong, the culture is the result of a long process of maturation with ideas, circumstances (economic, geographical, climatic,etc.), external influences, historical events molding the life values and principles of the inhabitants, and ultimately producing a unique culture. And the evolution never ends. The same process operates in companies and organizations.

History proves that when groups of people try to imitate the culture of others, it is always the beginning of the end. By adopting practices and habits that are not molded in their cultural soil, they quickly disappear. In the second part of the 20th century, Nauru tried to adopt a liberal economic scheme which obviously didn’t fit their culture. They adopted vanity practices, borrowed to countries like the United States or Australia, but they were not supported by their established way of living, their mindset, and their culture. And there wasn’t also no definite vision or determination for a cultural transformation. In 1974, the GDP of Nauru was the second in the world, just after Saudi Arabia. In 2015, their GDP was among one of the three lowest in the world. In a few years, the economy and culture were devastated. This story shows the colossal damages that vanity practices can generate.

Every time people use things they don’t master the ins and the outs, there are big risks. In companies, these risks are principally economic ones. But the meaning of work is also in danger. People can’t stand the pain of working without meaning for too long. When they don’t understand WHY they are doing such or such things, they lose their drive and their motivation. Stopping vanity practices is urgent. Let’s start now!


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Why Customer Collaboration is better than Contract Negotiation

Our ways of developing software are still broken. Methodologies are outdated and not well fitted for the products we want to build. Management must adhere to new ways of working to solve this problem.

We want to build software in a more efficient way. We want to stop wasting time and resources with bad ways of working. People are doing their best, it is the system we force them to fit into which is flawed. We want to fix this. We want to stop economic waste by enabling individuals making the most of their time. People deserve being motivated, passionate, driven, autonomous, and happy at work.

Old ways of developing products were fine for systems and components with predictable behavior. But when we develop software, we don’t know from the beginning what path we will take, and where it will lead us to. So, we must stay nimble; we don’t want long committed plans. We want a strict vision and a loose roadmap. We want commitment only for the near future.

“We want a strict vision and a loose roadmap

Contracts are designed to force contractors to align and commit to rigid rules. They are ways of making ourselves disciplined enough to adhere in the future to our present choices and decisions. With contracts, we want the future reality to conform to the rules we edict now.

At the opposite, with software development, we don’t want to limit ourselves to things we’ve taken for granted too soon. We know chances we are wrong are high, so we want to free ourselves from preconceived thoughts or judgments. We want to quickly adapt to reality all along the product development journey. We want reality always guides both our choices and decisions. Instead of contracts, we want a commitment to reality.

With software development, only time, experimentation and failed attempts, inform us about what is the right product to build. We want to make assumptions that we are eager to revise whenever it is necessary. The reality always remains our only master. Budgets are Lean-Agile, dynamic, revisable, and adaptable. Plans are not committed for months, and we frequently adjust them to reality.

“we want a commitment to reality… the reality always remains our only master

With SAFe, for instance, budgets are guided through guardrails, but that’s not contracts, that’s policies. They guide us through the adversity of the continuously moving conditions and changing circumstances of a complex environment. On the contrary, contracts are not designed to respond to change; they are only updated by exception. Contracts are not agile, they are fixed, static objects.

“Contracts are not agile, they are fixed, static objects

So why so many software development practitioners continue to use contracts? Because contracts have a reassuring effect. They procure a feeling of security. People sign contracts for everything: insurance contract for a smartphone, life insurance, a sports subscription, etc. Securing us with a contract has become a habit that we bring to the workplace. But, for developing good software, the workplace must look like a place of innovation and creativity rather than like a notarial office.

“for developing good software, the workplace must look like a place of innovation and creativity rather than like a notarial office

Even when the contract clearly goes against the interest of the product, our modern instinct pushes us to sign one (signed-off detailed specifications document) in order to alleviate the anguish created by the absence of a formal commitment (as says the neurologist Jonah Lehrer: “If a major brain function is to maintain mental homeostasis, it is understandable how stances of certainty can counteract anxiety and apprehension.”). We still cling to this feeling of certainty when we should be braver by accepting our ignorance, submitting to empirical testing what we took for granted, validating or not our hypothesis, and progressing towards a perfect understanding of the solution. As Jonah Lehrer says: “Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.

Being wrong is an indicator that we are trying hard enough to be right. When we pretend to be 100 percent right from the beginning by signing detailed specifications, it’s a sign we refuse the idea of being wrong. But if we’re never wrong, we never learn anything we didn’t already know.

“if we’re never wrong, we never learn anything we didn’t already know

The agile mindset promotes trust in place of contracts as a way to build confidence between individuals. Trust establishes confidence, transparency, and respect without the drawbacks of a contract; it permits continuous adaptation and response to change, what contracts absolutely hinder with their prescriptive nature.

Trust and contract are two words that don’t marry very well together. A contract is needed only when trust is not total. But we want the full trust to develop the best software.

The subtle art of modern management is to embrace both trust and uncertainty. In presence of chaotic and uncertain events, trust is more than ever needed. And in the modern software development world, contracts are not welcomed because they are vowed to misguide us.

“The subtle art of modern management is to embrace both trust and uncertainty

What about your way of developing software? Do you still use long, detailed, fixed, committed and signed-off requirements documents that don’t let any space for change and adaptation? Or do you prefer an empirical and agile approach, submitting your beliefs and hypothesis to testing, taking advantage of uncertainty and of the alternatives that it keeps alive, letting contracts aside in favor of delivering the right software through trials, errors and subsequent learning?

The Psychology of Agile

Abraham Maslow was a 20th-century psychologist who has written pieces of wisdom about Science, in particular about what concerns knowledge acquisition, learning with experimentation, and the importance of an incremental approach. All these insights are very relevant for our work with agility, and I’ll try  to show how in this post

In his book “The Psychology Of Science: A Reconnaissance” we can find a lot of analogies between the scientific approach and agility; after all, agility prescribes experimentation and learning through trial-and-error, and this is exactly how Science works.

Abraham Maslow writes: “I am tempted to claim that the first effort to research a new problem is most likely to be inelegant, imprecise, and crude. What one mostly learns from such first efforts is how it should be done better the next time. But there is no way of bypassing this first time.” Don’t you recognize a true manifest for an iterative and incremental approach?

We know that the mission of agile coaching contains an important part of psychology. How to deal with people (the emotional intelligence) is a crucial component for success. Maslow wrote: “most important of all in trying to understand another person — to keep our mouths shut and our eyes and ears wide open. This is different from the model way in which we approach physical objects, i.e., manipulating them, poking at them, to see what happens, taking them apart, etc. If you do this to human beings, you won’t get to know them. They don’t want you to know them. They won’t let you know them. Our interfering makes knowledge less likely, at least at the beginning. Only when we already know a great deal can we become more active, more probing, more demanding — in a word, more experimental.

About the growth mindset, the “inspect and adapt” habit, and the willingness to always go out of our comfort zone, Maslow writes: “growth was seen as an endless series of daily choices and decisions in each of which one can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

And about the fear of failure and our self-imposed limitations: “Much of their behavior could be understood as an attempt to retain self-esteem and to avoid anxiety-producing confrontation with problems from which they could expect only defeat. To this end, they, first of all, narrowed their worlds in order to avoid problems that they were incapable of handling and to restrict themselves to the problems they were capable of handlingWithin such constricted worlds, daring less and trying less, being “modest” about aspirations and goals, they could function well. Secondly, they ordered and structured these narrowed worlds carefully. They made a place for everything, and everything was in its place.

About why it is important to go out our comfort zone and embrace novelty that triggers openness and progress: “The obsessional person narrows his world by avoiding uncomfortable kinds of people, problems, impulses, and emotions, i.e., he lives a constricted life and tends to become a constricted person. He diminishes the world so that he may be able to control it.”

Agile mindset states that it is impossible to know all facts at the start of a project. Level of uncertainty is high at the beginning and that’s ok, we don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to eradicate doubts because it would only result into an illusion (doubt only decreases with repeated experimentations and subsequent learning, not with upfront extensive theoretical analysis).

Maslow assimilates this willingness of certainty to a pathology: “the compulsive need for certainty, rather than the appreciation and the enjoyment of it, is a “cognitive pathology“”.

And about what this urge for certainty produces: “The premature generalization that so often is a consequence of the desperate need for certainty (because one cannot bear the state of waiting, of not knowing what the decision will be).

When Maslow speaks about ideologies, we think of the second value of the agile manifesto that promotes individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Indeed, Maslow writes: “Even cultures and ideologies, many of them, can be analyzed from this point of view, e.g., as encouraging stupidity, as discouraging curiosity, etc.” Indeed, if the process prescribes stupidity, is it worth following it?

Maslow encourages adaptability, evolutivity over fixed behavior: “This ability to be either controlled and/or uncontrolled, tight and/or loose, sensible and/or crazy, sober and/or playful seems to be characteristic not only of psychological health but also of scientific creativeness.

And when Maslow writes “The merely cautious knower, avoiding everything that could produce anxiety, is partially blind. The world that he is able to know is smaller than the world that the strong man can know. To be on the side of courage, of growth and health, means also to be on the side of truth(especially since healthy courage and growth include healthy soberness, caution, and tough-mindedness)“, we can only think of the fourth agile value that promotes an adaptive approach over the following of a fixed plan. We understand that making a huge upfront detailed plan in order to reduce anxiety and stress of failure is blindness and illusion of security. Actually, adopting a more flexible approach dramatically reduces risk because it implies constantly adapting to present conditions and get rid of past and wrong guesses.

Other great quotes relevant to our agile quest:
Abstract knowledge dichotomized from experiential knowledge is false and dangerous, but abstract knowledge built upon and hierarchically-integrated with experiential knowledge is a necessity for human lifeIn other words, abstractness is absolutely necessary for life itself. It is also necessary for the fullest and highest development of human nature. Self-actualization necessarily implies abstractness. It is not even possible to conceive of human self-actualization without whole systems of symbols, abstractions, and words, i.e., language, philosophy, worldview.”

Maslow writes about the growth mindset, a necessity for progress in science: “Such an admission has the necessary consequence of making you in principle willing and eager to learn. It means that you are open rather than closed to new data. It means that you can be naive rather than all-knowing. And all of this means, of course, that your universe keeps on growing steadily in contrast to the static universe of the person who already knows everything.”

I would remind you again that any abstraction loses something of concrete, experiential reality. And with equal emphasis, I would remind you that the abstractions are necessary if we are to avoid total insanity and if we wish to live in the world. The solution of this dilemma that I have worked out for myself and that works well for me is to know when I am abstracting and when I am concretizing, to be able to do both, to enjoy them both, and to know the values and shortcomings of both.

The knowledgeable experiencer can often be a better enjoyer than the ignorant experiencer if we accept the formula “First look, and then know”. We can now add to it, “and then look again”, and we will see how much better cognizing becomes, how much more enjoyable, how much richer, how much more mysterious and awesome.

Since a good move toward fusion with anyone is to care for him and even to love him, we wind up with a “law” of learning and cognizing: Do you want to know? Then care!

 About the importance of relationship: “If you are trying to understand another person, it is better if he feels unthreatened with you, if he feels you accept, understand, and like him, perhaps even love him, if he feels that you respect him and if he feels that you do not threaten his freedom to be himself. If on the other hand you dislike him or disrespect him, if you feel contempt or disapproval, if you look down on him, or if you “rubricize” him, i.e., if you refuse to see him as an individual (43, ch. 9), then the person will close off much of himself and refuse to let himself be seen. He may even with secret malice deliberately give you wrong information. This happens often enough to ethnologists, psychotherapists, sociologists, public opinion pollers, child psychologists, and many others.”

About the necessity of the interest to the work: “The meaning of “love for” the object to be known, understood, and appreciated has to be seen more clearly in its complexities. At the least, it must mean “interest in” the object of study. It is difficult to see or hear that which is totally uninteresting or boring. It is also difficult to think about it, to remember it, to keep oneself at the job, to stick to it. All the defensive and resistive powers of the person can be mobilized into action when one is forced by some external pressure to study something totally uninteresting. One forgets one thinks of other things, the mind wanders, fatigue sets in, intelligence seems to diminish. In a word, one is likely to do a poor job unless one is minimally interested in the task and drawn to it. At least a little passion (or libidinizing) seems to be needed.”

And this final phrase about the necessity of independence that I found relevant for the Agile coach role, and the necessity to keep a sort of outsider position: “If you belong to the country club or the establishment, you are likely to take all its values for granted and not even notice them. This includes all the rationalizations, the denials, the official hypocrisies, etc. Just these the outsider can see clearly and easily. There are therefore some truths that the spectator can see more easily than the experiencer, who is part of the reality to be cognized.”

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Agility is the art of maximizing value with minimal effort

We all know the statement “Agility is the art of maximizing the work not done”. Stated differently, it could be “Agility is the art of maximizing value with minimal effort”.

And when we refer to value, we always must refer to the increment. The notion of Increment is one of the most important concepts that structure the Agile Software Development approach. Many agilists compare software to a piece of painting; when painting, an artist works in an incremental way, and with an approach based on common sense. Naturally, the artist thinks with an explore, inspect and adapt mindset; he is reluctant about the idea that his work could be condemned to destruction because of failure of execution in a small part of the painting.

So the incremental approach is a way to reduce risk by promoting feedback loops and a virtuous inspect and adapt process. With software, the risk is even more reduced than with painting because it is always possible to go back to the state corresponding to the previous increment. With a painting doing this is impossible, the artist could not restore its work to the previous state unless he finds a way of suppressing the newly added painting without degrading those added during the previous bouts of work.

Think about Dorian Gray, the painting is evolving over time in an incremental way. Unfortunately, in this case, the product doesn’t become more valuable time passing because the portrait grows old and ugly.

With Agile and Scrum, we want the iteration to add value to the increment. We don’t want that the code and the components we develop don’t add value to our product. This is related to the worst of the seven wastes of Lean Software Development: Extra Features. When you add features that are not needed to get the customer’s job done, you degrade the quality of the product (you eventually add new defects,etc.).

That’s why prioritization of the backlog and release planning are of supreme importance for ensuring an optimal product development process; they are occasions for the Product Owner and the Team to arbitrate between what is and what is not clearly necessary and even detrimental to the journey toward an optimal product quality. Constantly during the life of the product, the PO and the team should ask themselves: what do we need? But they should also ask: what is unnecessary and could even be an impediment to our product? Backlog grooming is an opportunity for prioritizing the work, but also for maximizing the return on investment we make of our development effort. To do this we must envision the desired final state of our product and work backward to define all tasks ultimately necessary for attaining our ideal image. By imagining only valuable features (remember the importance of working in close collaboration with the customer), we derive only the tasks that led to this optimal state, and we dramatically enhance our return investment for our development effort.

Agility is the art of maximizing the work not done, in other words, the art of maximizing value with minimalist effort. This is a subtle art that requires an intelligent approach of how and where we put the focus in our work; not only we don’t want to put too much effort too soon on preparation but also we don’t want to spend too much time on things that could be useless for a sound utilization of our product.

For maximizing the value without spending useless effort we must focus on the customer and not on the product itself. Focusing on the customer permits our mental space to give space for thorough inspection and discovery of what would really delight the customer.

When we open up our thinking by putting ourselves in the customer’s shoes, we must adopt a narrative approach because that’s what we all love, in particular when we are in the position of the customer. We crave telling ourselves a good story that confirms what we do, what we buy, what we consume. That’s why user story format works so well in maximizing the value of the product. As soon as a story is not relevant regarding the improvement of the valuation of the product, it quickly becomes highly visible with this format. Incongruities are most striking when stated in a narrative form because nonsenses suddenly become very apparent.

My Vision of Agility

I always prefer thinking of Agility as common sense. My experience in life has learned me that common sense is always the best path towards success.

It’s a mystery thinking about why common sense is not widely used in big companies who generate billion dollars as revenue. Many things act as obstacles between the potential of a company and its achievement, and among them, a bad usage of common sense, that more widely used, would help the business attain a higher level of success.

One of the most concrete obstacles on the path of more common sense is the hierarchical structure of companies. Because there are so many decisional levels, most individuals are in the situation in which they can’t decide anything on their own.

Procedures are big obstacles on the path towards Agility. In the Agile Manifesto, the first value favorize individuals and interactions rather than processes and tools. But in a company, individuals are classified based on their position on the hierarchical ladder, and interactions between them can sometimes become difficult because of this difference of level.

To prosper, collaboration needs trust and respect. People tend to protect themselves and reduce their tendency to collaborate when they feel that these two components are missing. So favoring collaboration is first an affair of modifying the structure of organizations and the way management is organized, designed and practiced.

The management should establish a culture in which discussion is privileged and not refrained because of the potential negative impact it could have. People should feel safe to have true discussions without being afraid of blaming or judging. In all situations, managers should avoid infantilize people or make them feel inferior in any way.

The Agile thinking about management is well summarized by the notion of the servant leader. With this new paradigm, the manager becomes an individual being in support of others, and not appearing as a commander, but rather as a facilitator. For managers, this should not be taken as an opportunity to become patronizing; the servant leader should give its best to make others succeed and grow, and he should be preoccupied with collective success before individual one.

Agility is the capacity to take decisions at all levels of the company. Deferring decision is waste because it costs both time and money, and it also could result in missing big opportunities. By making the organization flatter, the Agile way of working injects reactivity and intelligence into the organization.

Agility is not a trend that companies should follow to “do as others”; it’s a true game-changer when sincerely implemented into the organization and adopted by people at all levels.

It’s important that managers understand how they should modify their posture to fit with the Agile mindset, but that’s also necessary that employees are convinced by the relevance of the transformation and give the best of themselves to make it becomes a decisive reality.