Back to Back to Basics

No, that’s not a typo.  This is about getting back to remembering to get back to the basics. Why do I say that? I feel like the Agile community is losing its mind.

Businesses selling “scaled Agile coaching” to companies that don’t have the basics of Agile culture

Increased focus on scaling, increased “pre-packaged models,” and an increase of Agile terminology being dumped in to the buzzword soup, has meant that people have forgotten the basics. They have even forgotten how to get back to getting back to basics.

Maybe it was inevitable–a product of Agile’s success–, but teams and people no longer ask productive questions like “What is Agile?” or “How can my team become Agile?” Agile has become big business–or at least a medium sized profit center inside of big business. Now, when teams mention to management that they are having issues with  their Agile practice, one of the first things that comes up is “We can send in a SAFe coach for you–get you scaled up!” That’s kind of like deciding to have another kid because, after the first one, your marriage feels like it’s in shambles.

These days, when I do get to sit down with teams who have said “We want to do Agile,” and after introducing them to the Agile manifesto, after explaining that Agile is a cultural mindset and not just something you “do,” after taking them the “journey of why,” we get into Q&A. The very first question I’m asked is this:

“What tool will we be using?”

I call it “App fixation,” the automatic response that there is an app or a tool that will allow you to take a shortcut

Hoping that this will be a great teaching moment, I point them back to the line in the Agile manifesto–”Individuals and interactions over process and tools,”– and the typical response is unsettling

“Yeah, yeah, we get that.  People, teams yadda yadda yadda.  What tool should we use? What tool do YOU use.”

To make my point, and to try and shake them out of their “App fixation” I tell them that I don’t use a tool.  I tell them that I have switched back to white boards and sticky notes. (Full transparency, that is not entirely true–I TRY to use a white board and stickies for my home improvement projects backlog, but. . . )

The point is, Teams and companies keep looking for shortcuts or pre-packaged solutions to building a culture and getting the basics right.

Many of these teams have existed within a heavily process-oriented, hierarchy culture–for a long time. They may be extremely hard-wired to tools and process.  It’s their safe place. Process is warm and fuzzy. Process is a place to hide problems. Tools are safe and fun to focus on. They are a great scapegoat. Blame it on the tool.

Now, I’m not saying people are overtly saying the want to hide behind process and tools. I’m simply saying that the comfort and ease with which that happens is seductive.

It seems ridiculous to have to say, but easy is not hard; most people will go with easy.

Rather than continue the argument about the manifesto, I take it in another direction. Here’s the one that seems to do the trick:

Thanks for Antonio Smith:
Get great at the fundamentals

“Right now, you all are a brand new basketball team. Some of you have watched some basketball; some actually played at one time or another; others of you have never actually bounced a basketball. You have not learned how to pass or shoot together.  Hell, you haven’t even learned to dribble yet. You may not even know who is actually going to be dedicated members of your team. That is a whole lot of basic stuff to get in order. Instead of asking something like, when can we start doing drills?

You are asking me what what brand of backboard we’ll be using.”

Work with the backboard you have. Get back to the basics.

  • Think of clear users stories and tasking as good dribbling skills
  • Think of quality standups as good passing
  • Think of Sprint reviews as good shooting
  • Think of retrospectives and continuous improvement as watching game reels
  • Think of planning as building set pieces or learning to pick and roll
  • Think of refinement as having a good scrimmage

Get good at going back to the basics. Practice together and build a team. Improve as  a team, and you have a culture. Improve as a culture, and you can build anything.

Arjay has been in project management for over 19 years and has been an active Agilist for almost a decade in multiple companies. His most recent role has been as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach At Large with Red Hat. There he has given workshops in "User Story Writing," "Is Kan Ban Right For You," and "Decision Making For The Product Owner." Outside of Red Hat Arjay gives regular Agile overview workshops for multiple recruiting agencies, and works with Construction, Design, and other non-software groups on Agile principles. As a CSP, Arjay is always looking for ways to help teams learn as they improve. He comments on those and other Agile efforts in this blog. Outside of work, Arjay raises chickens with his wife, Cathy, and their dog, Matilda.
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