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Learning to Become Agile

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The agile paradigm adapts processes to human nature, in contrast to the classical management approach which obliges team members to adjust to a particular development process, claimed Dan Suciu, lecturer at UBB Cluj. He spoke about Agilis Humanum Est (To Be Agile is Human) at TopConf Linz 2017.

Suciu started his talk by explaining Gregory Bateson's theory on how people learn things based on the logical levels of learning and change. The lowest level is about understanding the environment and finding out where change is needed. The next level has to do with adopting practices and learning new behavior, and the following level is about improving your skills and capabilities. On the next level, you develop your own values and beliefs. The two highest levels focus on shaping your identify, and defining a scope/vision.

To learn something new you have to go through all these levels, said Suciu. Any change at a specific learning level moves you onwards to higher levels, where change is also needed. Suciu mentioned smokers, who are thinking about quitting smoking, as an example of when it can be hard to change your behavior. To really quit smoking you have to change your values and beliefs about smoking, said Suciu, then it becomes easier to change your behavior.

Suciu explained how the agile manifesto can be mapped on Bateson’s learning model. The manifesto for agile software development starts with a vision, which makes it clear that it’s about "uncovering better ways of developing software". This vision fits into the scope and vision level of the learning model. Based on this vision, organizations can define their agile identity, the way that they would like to "be agile". The four agile values belong to the values and belief level of the model.

It’s good to know the agile values, but to learn something new like agile you need more, argued Suciu. This is why these are principles in the agile manifesto, which fit into the skills and capabilities level. There are many practices and tools which can be used to implement the agile principles- they belong to the behavior level. These practices have been grouped into agile methods like Scrum or XP, and there are books which describe how you can implement them; Suciu mapped this to the environment level.

Looking at agile on all the levels explains why the path from doing agile - following an agile method - to being agile - having your own agile identity and vision - can take a long time, said Suciu. He mentioned three traps, which are main problems that hamper us in becoming agile, each one at a specific level:

  • environment (Best Practices)
  • behavior (Complexity)
  • skills & capabilities (Adaptability)

We are seduced by best practices, argued Suciu. We frequently hear how others do it and then we try to apply the same thing, which doesn’t work. The models and books that we have are often about ideal projects, he said. They describe specific roles and practices to explain how to do such projects in an agile way. The real world is not like that; we cannot apply these roles and practices as described in the methods and books, as our context is different. Hence, we must adapt them.

We are seduced by complex solutions; we think that complex solutions are better, and if we find an easy solution we don’t believe it’s correct, said Suciu. He quoted Stefan Roock:

Complex solutions are wrong, even if they are correct

We also appreciate those who come up with complex solutions more, and consider them to be smarter, said Suciu.

We adapt to things which are wrong, but we do not realize this as we are too close to see those things, argued Suciu. Our capability to adapt makes it hard to discover ways to improve our way of working.

Suciu presented a personal experience, where he broke a lens of his glasses and the optician replaced it with a photochromatic one. "For one month I was not able to detect the difference between these lenses, even if they were exactly in front of my eyes", said Suciu.

Retrospectives can become less effective after a couple of sprints when the team thinks that everything goes well and nothing needs to be improved. Suciu suggested to step back and take another look; team members might be too deep into things to really see how the team is doing.

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