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Joy of Agility with Joshua Kerievsky

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In this podcast Shane Hastie spoke to Joshua Kerievsky about his keynote at the Agile 2022 conference in July and his forthcoming book Joy of Agility 

Key Takeaways

  • The core of Modern Agile is about embracing new ideas, adapting and evolving agile approaches based on emergent knowledge and thinking
  • Many of the ideas in Modern Agile (for example trunk based development) are not new but are still not practiced well 
  • Agility is about moving with quick, easy grace and being resourceful – this can apply in all aspects of life and work
  • Mantras for agility include be quick but don’t hurry, be balanced and graceful 
  • Drive out fear – fear prevents high performance

Transcript

Introductions [00:15]

Shane Hastie: Good day, folks, this is Shane Hastie, the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today, I'm sitting down with Joshua Kerievsky. Joshua, it is wonderful to see you again.

Joshua Kerievsky: Likewise, Shane really wonderful. I know we saw each other in person a few years probably before COVID and it's wonderful to see you on Zoom here and from your home in New Zealand.

Shane Hastie: And you are in California if I remember correctly?

Joshua Kerievsky: Yes. The Bay Area of California correct.

Shane Hastie: So you're the founder of Industrial Logic, you're also the primary author of Modern Agile.

The ideas of Modern Agile [00:51]

Joshua Kerievsky: You could say that. We collaborated on this at Industrial Logic, but I was the first person talking about it, so yes.

Shane Hastie: Well, let's just touch on Modern Agile as one of the things that you're well known for. It's 10 years old now?

Joshua Kerievsky: Not quite. well, it really came out around 2016, so that's when I first made it public. So yeah, it's getting some years behind it.

Shane Hastie: Not as old as the agile manifesto, so it can't drink alcohol yet.

Joshua Kerievsky: That's right.

Shane Hastie: How has the take up been of the ideas of Modern Agile?

Joshua Kerievsky: To date, I have the numbers here. It's 33,240, no, I'm just joking because I have no numbers to report, right? These are four principles. We haven't certified anyone in using them, and so it's all very anecdotal and it's very hard to say what the uptick is. I never know if someone's using the Modern Agile wheel of the four principles in a slide deck or in a talk. I do know we continue to offer translations of it. So it's basically, I think we just updated the Korean version recently. So it's actually hard to answer what its impact has been. And I never really cared to, I never went into it going how are we going to know what the impact is? I didn't really care about that.

I cared about just trying to bring things back to simplicity, to some extent, but primarily the word modern is controversial in some regards, because there're elements of agility which are of course timeless, then there's practices. And I think practices, certain methods and practices and frameworks and they can actually get outdated. And that was my point back then in 2016 was, you know what, there's more modern ways to do some of these things that you may want to learn about and they'll always be modernizing. It's the 2016 modern version. It's modernization.

You have a breakthrough and then certainly you start doing something you hadn't done before. Continuous deployment for example, wasn't something that I did in the first 10 years of my agile work. And then around maybe 2008 or nine, I started doing continuous deployment and it was like this is marvellous. And it changed everything in a sense. So modernization. We are uncovering better ways of developing software or words from the agile Manifesto. Well, I take that seriously. And a lot of others do too, who care to just find better and simpler and safer and more streamlined ways of working. So that's what drove the use of the word modern, and I'm proud of it being out there and helping people. And we'll be talking about my book a little bit later. I had expected to maybe write a book about it, but I ended up pivoting a little bit.

Shane Hastie: Talking about that modernization, what are some of the things that you see happening in the world today that are bringing these would be called more modern ideas, more modern practices?

Some modern and emerging ideas that matter [03:49]

Joshua Kerievsky: Certainly when it comes to modern practices, more and more folks are of course, using the cloud. Now that's nothing particularly new, but what's happening is there's more and more services in the cloud to make it really, really fast to produce something pretty robust. So there's a lot of how can you make it simpler and safer for people to get stuff done safely and quickly? How do you do that? So I see everyone's moving to the cloud. Of course, there's problems there too, but that's I think going in the right direction in terms of trying to make life easier. Psychological safety is something that everyone talks about these days, it's a buzzword at this point and yet it remains one of those very important practices that most companies don't understand how important it is to invest in something like that.

If software's not doing too well or let's say just performance isn't doing too well, the last thing they say is, "I need budget for psych safety." It's like, "No, I need budget to find more people or contractor with an outside firm." It's never, "Oh, we have a problem with safety and that's one of the major reasons for our lack of performance”. There's a difference between a pain killer and a vitamin, and it remains I think in the vitamin category unfortunately because that's not quite right.

So to me, modern teams are getting into psych safety and studying it and really trying to practice it. There's also of course DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion. So the recognition that we're actually going to be higher performing if we have a whole diversity of opinion, diverse people. Diversity in general is really wonderful and everything that goes along with that DEI, the equity and inclusion. So having people feel part of something. In my own experience, when you have a diverse set of voices helping to produce something, it tends to be richer. It tends to be more empathetic to the larger group. So I think that's a very healthy direction that we're going in.

I think a lot of the ideas though, let's just go back to software still trunk based development, things like that. They're still barely ever used, and I could still say that's the modern way and everyone's still far behind with all the crazy branching they're doing and all the painful stuff. So it's funny to say things like trunk based development is just a modern thing, but it's been around for a long time, it's just still not caught on. So just to conclude, I think that agile is in a very precarious place at this point in its journey so I don't know in terms of modernization of agility, I think it's got a bad rap at this point in general. I could be wrong, but there's more people that think it's past its prime or has not delivered on its promise or are just misunderstanding it, thinking that it's something that it's not. And I think that's a problem for us because it's not necessarily that they get what it's all about.

Shane Hastie: So really good food for thought there. And what about Industrial Logic, how things with Industrial Logic?

Industrial Logic through the pandemic [06:56]

Joshua Kerievsky: Things are great. We've been growing over the years, the pandemic actually led a lot of our customers to realize that in fact, we could be very helpful to them even from remote offices that we never really did need to show up. There's nothing quite like being in-person, however, we pivoted rapidly to the remote work and of course we've been a remote company for years, so yeah, we've had people all over the world we're working with. So it wasn't particularly new to us, but our customers surprised me in that they very quickly converted over to remote work and that's been great. It's been really great. It's actually allowed us to hire people that we probably couldn't have hired before. Some of them have families and we don't ever kill people on the road with too much travel, but this was zero travel so much more sustainable and better for family life.

Shane Hastie: One of the triggers for our conversation today is you're going to be giving the closing keynote at the upcoming Agile 2022 conference. And it's about joy of agility, which also happens to be the name of your new book. So tell us what is- Joy of Agility.

The impetus behind writing a book [08:01]

Joshua Kerievsky: So over the years I do spend time explaining what agility is to folks, and I started to write some stories and these were real life stories. A lot of them are stories I would just tell as well, tell them in a workshop setting for example. Over time I realized, if I write these down, they'll be more helpful to people. So they could look at them, refer to them and I could point to them and say, "That's agility right there." You sometimes you hear a story and it's like, "Wow, what a perfect example of agility?" So basically I started writing stories and the more stories I wrote, the more I realized there may be a book here. And as I continued to write those stories down, I handed up with 50, 60, 100 stories, all with little lessons in them and that was definitely a book.

So that led me on a journey in terms of what should the book be called? And then who, and then how do I organize all these stories into sections or parts, if you will? And gradually the book came about, probably over three or four years. I wanted to write an important book because there's lots of books about agile. So my goal here was to really help people understand what does this word agile mean? And what does it mean to be agile? And that means in any context, I don't care if it's sports, surgery, business, anything, the kitchen, what does it mean to be agile? Because I think for most people and you ask them, "What does agile mean?" You're going to get a completely different answer, and I don't think that helps us.

I think there is dictionaries for a reason. And if you go to the dictionary and you look up the word and start to inquire what does this mean? Okay, I see the definition, great. Now how do I translate that into action? So part of writing the book as well was to say, so some people said to me about Modern Agile, great. We have these four principles in Modern Agile, and if you haven't heard them, they are: make people awesome, make safety a prerequisite, experiment and learn rapidly and deliver value continuously. Okay. Four principles.

Making principles of agility through stories and examples [10:02]

Joshua Kerievsky: But many people would say to me, "Yeah, but what do we do? You've never told us what to do. You've just said these principles are important." So in a way, this book exists to answer that question. However, I didn't want to come up with another trademarked framework or method or what have you. I just wanted to point to what do you do if you're agile? And so what does it mean and what are examples? What's exemplary agility look like? And to me, I see examples of agility in all kinds of stories and all kinds of domains, whether it's Richard Branson being stuck on an island and figuring out a way to deal with a problem he ran into or it's Massimo Bottura dealing with his sous-chef's mistake when he broke a wafer for someone's dessert, what did he do there? There's agility in so many different aspects of life, I wanted to tell stories of that and point to what ended up becoming some mantras that to me really express what is it you need to be doing if you expect to be agile?

Shane Hastie: Can we explore those mantras?

Agile is not a noun [11:02]

Joshua Kerievsky: Absolutely. I would say first what led to the mantras as well, and the shaping of those mantras was the two definitions of agile that are in the dictionary. When I say the dictionary, Chris there's debate about which dictionary. There's the OED, the Oxford English dictionary, which I think is normally the place to go to understand language. In this particular case, I don't favor the definition there. I like the Miriam-Webster dictionary's definition. And you could say that it's based upon American English, but I don't think that's quite fair. In any event, the Miriam-Webster dictionary has two wonderful definitions of the adjective. Agile is an adjective, right? It's never meant to be a noun. It's an adjective. So an adjective further describes a noun. So an agile dancer, an agile surgeon, an agile team.

Agile means two things, one is marked by an ability to move with quick, easy, grace. Actually, I got that slightly wrong, marked by a ready ability, a ready ability. So it's there's no hesitation there. Marked by a ready ability to move with quick, easy grace or it's having a quick resourceful and adaptable character. So one is talking about moving with quick, easy grace, and you could easily say, "No, it's not just moving. It's working with quick, easy, grace." Right? And the other is about having a quick resourceful and adaptable character. So what I find is I have to spend a lot of time on this because a lot of people don't understand what the words mean. It turns out even the word quick is complicated, now that sounds crazy.

Quick, we all know what quick means. Actually, we don't. And so you have to actually say what does it not mean? Well, it doesn't mean hurrying and it doesn't mean rushing. It also doesn't mean going slow, but it could mean going slow for a good reason like sharpening a saw. If you're sharpening a saw, you're slowed down, but now once it's sharp, you're going to go cut. So ultimately that's really quick, right? So there's all these aspects of around that one word, I just said marked by ready ability to move with quick, easy, grace. And it's like I can't even assume that people know what those words mean. We have to dive deep into each word. What does it mean to be quick? What does it mean to be graceful? And what does it not mean?

Be quick, but don’t hurry [13:19]

Joshua Kerievsky: And so I ended up diving deep into this, writing these stories. And then ultimately, I had to figure out where did the stories belong in what parts of this book and what happened was this beautiful connection between the definitions of agile and the stories led to these mantras. And I didn't make up all the mantras, right? Some of them are well known mantras from famous people. So one of the first ones is be quick, but don't hurry. This is a mantra from a legendary basketball coach in the United States who was not only a legendary player, he's in the Hall of Fame as a basketball player. He's also in the Hall of Fame as a basketball coach, and he did things no one has ever done to this day, right?

In college basketball, there's something called the NCAA athletic Association Championships. I think in a period of 12 years, his team, the UCLA Bruins won 10 times in a 12 year span. No one's ever come close to this. John Wooden is the coach's name and his mantras and his way of training his players, he produced agile athletes. They were agile. And if you study his works and there's all these books about him, I think there's probably 50 books. Some of which he co-wrote and many of which were written about him, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the famous professional basketball player for the Lakers and played on the UCLA Bruins and was devoted to John Wooden, and all of the things that John taught his players really made them agile.

So be quick, but don't hurry was a mantra that he used many times per day. And he would say, "There's a real line between hurrying and rushing and being quick." If you're hurrying or rushing, you're making mistakes or you're prone to making mistakes. If you're quick, it's all good. So I like to make this very clear distinction that quick is good, hurrying and rushing is bad and understand the difference, and think about it daily. What am I doing right now? Am I rushing? Am I hurrying or am I being quick? Quickness typically is a result of skill, is a result of practice, it's a result of not hesitating because you're so skilled that you just don't even hesitate.

There's a lot of flow. Think about Don Reinertsen's principles of product development flow. Yeah, I can talk about basketball forever, but they all translate to many other endeavours, right? I've been watching Roland-Garros lately, the tennis tournament in France in Paris. And you can see when a player wins a point, they're making the other player hurry, a rush to try to get to the ball because they hit it somewhere that was difficult. Now they got to rush and get over there and they'll often mess up. So in sport, a lot of times you'll win by making your opponent rush or hurry.

Now in business, that may be different. But we know in business that quickness is important, it's just not the only thing in business and agile does not equal quick. It doesn't equal quick. Agile does not equal just being adaptive, right? Adaptive is great. We love the word. But a plan could adapt over a hundred years. It's not necessarily fast, could say Blockbuster. They finally adapted, Blockbuster that took them 10 years to adapt meanwhile Netflix ate their lunch, but yeah, 10 years later they adapted. Now, yeah. Okay. They adapted, they weren't agile.

To be agile, you got to be quick, resourceful and adaptive altogether. The Venn diagram, it's in the middle, agility. So in any way, this is a deep dive, this book into these definitions, the definition, and then the mantra. So be quick, but don't hurry helps to magnify the importance and the understanding of what does it mean to be quick. And there's stories in there about companies that hurried and rushed and all the bad consequences that resulted from that. There's stories in there about people learning a skill and then not being fast enough at it, so that was a lack of speed. Stories about failing fast and what does that really mean? Nuances around the words be quick, but don't hurry so you can understand that deeper.

Shane Hastie: What would another one be?

Be balanced and graceful [17:18]

Joshua Kerievsky: Another one is another one of my favourites. So it turns out that John Wooden had a lot of mantras. He was also obsessed with the word balance and he would say, "You cannot be quick if you don't have balance." And he would say it's not just physical balance we're talking about, we're talking about mental balance, emotional balance and physical balance. We're talking about offensive balance, defensive balance, size balance, balance, balance, balance. Balance in life. He just loved the word and loved the concept that you got to get the balance right to be quick, and to be quick is an element of being agile.

So my second mantra is be balanced and graceful. They go hand in hand because I don't believe you can be graceful if you're not balanced. Think about when you've been unstable. If you're unstable, you're angry about something or someone said something it really bugs you. You probably not going to be as graceful as you could normally be because you're out of balance. That's a mental thing, right? If you talk about psychological safety, we're talking about how to establish an environment in which there's a balance of power. People aren't afraid to speak their mind. People are not going to be criticized or penalized for saying something that's going to upset someone else. It's an environment which is more adaptive to different ideas let's say.

So balance I think plays into the mental game. I think balance plays into product development. You could say a lot of places like they think we don't do enough maintenance around here. We just build and build and build and everything's falling apart because there's not a good balance between maintenance activities and new development activities. Got the balance off, you're not going to be too agile when something goes wrong and you've got a messed up infrastructure or a messed up code base or the product is poor quality because you never spent time improving it. So to me, balance is one of those words that we don't talk about a lot. And yet it's always been lurking there as a key ultimately to being quick.

So being graceful is also this wonderful word, which if you look into what it means, we can always understand graceful as being elegant and flowing and all those words. But another way to look at the word grace is it really means ease and supplements of movement or bearing. And if you study the word supple, it means effectively being adaptive to changes, right? Anything that supple can adapt to whatever's put on it or whatever, it's adaptive. So the word grace has these elements of thoughts of adaptability in there, right?

Drive out fear[19:57]

So if you it's quick, easy and graceful, you tend to be able to handle unexpected changes if you're graceful. So be quick, but don't hurry is a mantra. Be balanced and graceful is another mantra. Another one is straight out of W. Edwards Deming and this relates closely to make safety a prerequisite. And that is drive out fear, drive out fear. So if you really want to be agile, you ultimately need to be fearless. You need to have fear removed, and there's a lot of different ways to approach that. I also do talk a little bit about a healthy fear, sometimes there are things you ought to be afraid of. So you're not ultimately trying to be completely fearless, right? But you're trying to drive out most fear because fear inhibits us from moving quickly and it inhibits our ability to typically to be graceful and be ourselves.

So drive out fear is another one of the mantras that I think it's not like the words fear are in those definitions of agile, but we know that if you're afraid, you don't tend to act too quickly. There's stories of people building the Bay Bridge in the Bay Area. And back then on the Bay Bridge, they didn't really have safety nets or anything like it. It was more of the old fashion style project where you'd be way up there as a steelworker on the bridge and if a wind caught you and you fell, you would die. And back then I think they would say that there was a certain percentage of fatalities they were expected for every million dollars spent on a big, large industrial project, and it was a lot of death.

The San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge on the other hand was actually one of the first more modern construction projects. And at some point they vowed to make it the safest construction project that they'd ever done. First of all, for years, no one thought that they could actually make a bridge over that span, it's too long. It was like, "It's impossible. We can't do this." And someone came along finally and said, "No, we really can do this." And they approached it through safety. Safety led to high performance. Instead of workers fearing for their lives and working slowly because of it, the safety nets they put under as one example of safety caught them. A certain number of people fell in, I think 17 fell in accidentally into the net, some jumped into fun, but we won't talk about those folks. But the ones that fell in and almost lost their lives, they said, "We're able to work faster because the net's going to catch us if we fall driving out fear." Psychological safety, big way to drive out fear. There's all kinds of things that you can do to drive out fear.

So all this is very interconnected in terms of high performance. If you're afraid, you're not going to go too fast. If you're afraid to change some code for fear of introducing a defect, you're going to probably go very slowly and really spend lots of time reviewing this versus a code base that's you're not so afraid because maybe there's lots more safety in place and it's high speed, tests that run, checks that run. So these things are very well connected.

Shane Hastieb>: Thank you so much for that. So I won't ask you to give us all six, people can read the book, also come and listen to you talk in Nashville, but when is the book coming out?

Joshua Kerievsky: Book publishers are interesting. This is a large book publisher that I went with and they have certain periods when they put books out and they're dark periods where they're like, "We don't put books out then." So they will actually be out in February of 2023. And for me, that seems like eternity, because the manuscript was done an early part of this year, but in any event, that's when it will be out in print. And until then, you can join an email list and there's a way to stay in touch, learn more about the book. Joyofagility.com is coming, so it may be available by time you listen to this and if not, Joy of Agility is a part of our website on Industrial Logic you can find it through our content section.

I'm really excited about this book. I really want it to get into a lot of hands that are not necessarily in the technology business. Not to say I have anything against technology business, I love the technology business. I love software development. I love what we do, but I love agility so much that I really want people to understand what it really means and I really want them to be able to apply it in all aspects of life, not just one narrow field.

Shane Hastie: You've told us find it on the Industrial Logic website, I'll make sure we include the links there. If people do just want to continue the conversation with you, where do they find Joshua?

Joshua Kerievsky: Well, I'm on Twitter, I'm on LinkedIn so those are probably the best places for me. And you can look up my spelling of my last name which is not simple. So that's definitely a place to hit me up, also on Industrial Logic's website, under the People section, you can find me and send me a direct message that way I can write back to you. Well, plenty of ways to interact with me and happy to answer any questions you have.

Shane Hastie: Joshua, thanks very much. This has been a great conversation.

Joshua Kerievsky: Thank you, Shane.

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