Agility is a Journey NOT a Set of Processes

By Joe Naumann, Director of Agility & Process

I was recently introduced to an old Buddhist koan:

“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
– Zen Master Linji

At first, this confused me since I wasn’t as familiar with Buddhism as I was with some other theologies.  When I dug into it deeper, I found a very close relation between that koan and a conversation I had a few years back.  A few years ago, I was having lunch with a group of friends and I mentioned that I was an Agile Coach. One of the friends in attendance who does software development for a major government service rolled his eyes and shook his head.  He stated “Agile is a waste of time! We tried it and went back to our normal methods and we’re just as successful.” His anti-agility reaction was so passionate that my first thought was: “Who hurt you?”

After talking with him about his statement for a few minutes, I came to understand that it wasn’t “Agile” itself at the center of his frustration.  It was the manner in which agility was implemented for his team that burned him. During his transformation, he was told to practice Scrum and the Scrum Master assigned to his team had been extremely prescriptive and rigid when it came to processes.  When the team felt that something wasn’t working for them, they were told that the problem could not be with the process. It was described as if it were a perfect framework for all software development teams. They were told that it must be the team and their application of the process that was the problem.

Thinking back over these instances and the missteps I’ve made on my own journey toward agility, I see a pattern.  I can think back to how I once looked at “Agile” as set of processes and made some of the same mistakes described above.  I wish that I could go back and give all the teams I’ve launched the concept of agility first, rather than a set process. Whether you think you should run Scrum, Kanban, or some sort of Lean-XP-Scrumban, inspecting everything, including all of your practices, is necessary to ensure you are valuing learning over process.

All of your practices should evolve over time and if you do not participate in this process of evolution, you can run the risk of believing you’ve caught lightning in a bottle.  I believe the best teams emerge when they are given freedom, ownership and trust to do the right thing the way that works for them. That custom process will not always have a name and that’s ok.  The fact that it works and can continue to grow is what is important. There will be many things that will appear to be perfection (e.g. “the Buddha”) on your own journey toward your own flavor of agility.  I encourage you to question the perceived perfection in things, especially practices, and commit to learning what works over believing you know what works.

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