On Wednesday, Feb 12th, 2020, Florian Gamper spoke at Leaders in Tech in Berlin about why agile is misunderstood, and how he’s dealt with the challenges that have arisen in implementing agile in the companies he’s worked with as a freelance CTO. Foremost, he’s worked to educate all stakeholders beyond the software engineers about what it means to have an agile mindset. When we met for our interview Florian’s passion for the topic really shone through, and one of the ideas he wanted to make sure got through is the fallacy of implementing agile through a “product” or ritual. His talk, “Working agile – not dead, but badly misunderstood,” included stories of when this went wrong, and how looking at agile as an on-going process and a mindset to be developed can help improve outcomes — and lead to real organisational change.
Florian shared a few concepts to consider, when thinking about agile
“Agility is a mindset and you cannot buy a mindset.”
One mistake Florian pointed out was that managers at companies think of agile as a product to buy, like a single tool or software that will transform the way their employees work into the vaunted “agile” system. While there are specific tools that can be used as part of helping teams to work in a more agile manner, they’re a means to developing a process and a mindset – not an end to themselves. That’s why working in two week sprints isn’t going to make code appear faster or a delayed project suddenly get released on time. One thing that distinguishes sprints is that the requirements and outcomes are set at the beginning and don’t change. The change in mindset involves determining what is needed at the moment, and letting the team work on it.
Cargo Cult Agile
Cargo cult is the phenomenon where a group of people copy the behaviors they see others doing, in the hope of getting similar results. However, since they don’t know why they’re building an airplane runway, in the case of Melanesians, they also don’t know why this won’t cause airplanes carrying cargo to appear. The phenomenon applies to programming and to agile as well, where teams or organisations adopt the rituals of some agile frameworks, like standups, scrum, or story points, in the hope that they will lead to the faster and cheaper results.
Renaming meetings to “standups” won’t change the mindset of the participants if they don’t understand why they’re doing regular standups. Similarly, by hiring a scrum master and implementing scrum “by the book” won’t have the same impact if that team doesn’t get to have the associated retrospectives. Those retrospectives are there to figure out what’s going wrong in the current process and making changes, they’re key to the whole process. They’re part of the constant re-evaluation and on-going improvement for how the team works.
One of the ways to avoid just copying the rituals of successful companies is to educate the teams and participants in the process. They should always be asking themselves, “what is this for?” By questioning the purpose of a particular ritual, process, or ceremony, they can begin to understand how it does or doesn’t fit within that particular company’s context and culture. They can choose not to do it – but only with the knowledge of what they’re trading away, and considering what other ways there might be of achieving what was originally intended.
You can watch the full talk here.