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Does Agile Work Because We are Optimistic?

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Does Agile Work Because We are Optimistic?

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I read the Business Week opening remarks, How Optimism Strengthens Economies.  See this quote at the end:

the group of people who turn out to be most accurate about predicting how long it will take to complete tasks—and how likely they are to succeed—are the clinically depressed. Optimists underestimate how difficult it will be to succeed. But that self-deception is precisely what makes them willing to take more risks and invest in a better future, while the pessimists slouch toward self-fulfilling failure. 

Pessimistic people are more accurate with their estimation. Optimists underestimate. Their optimism allows them to take more risks and innovate. Which kind of person are you? (I’m both, in different circumstances.)

That got me thinking about why agile works.

Agile and Lean (I’m using Agile as shorthand for both) help us make progress in small chunks. That creates hope and optimism in the project team. When the project team demos or releases to other people, they trust the team and a become hopeful and optimistic.

We know from The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work that the more we make progress with small wins, the better we feel and the more likely we are to make more progress. That leads to hope and optimism.

Is this why Agile works? Because we can make progress daily?

It’s not the only reason. We also need feedback. When we provide demos to other people, as often as possible, we build trust. With trust comes the possibility of better connection and feedback.

We get feature-itis because we’re no longer in requirements hell. Other people can see that a project team can deliver. That leads to optimism and hope in the organization. (I’m differentiating the two, because they are different. See my review of Seligman’s book.) With hope, people can rise to many occasions. Without hope? I bet you’ve been there on a project. It isn’t pretty.

Agile is not for everyone. Agile approaches? Yes. Completing small chunks of work and showing it to other people? You can do that with deliverable-based planning, building incrementally, and iterative approaches to replanning. If you want a name for that approach, it’s called staged delivery or design to schedule.

If you’re doing Agile well, you’re delivering new small features into the code base every day or every other day. That helps you feel as if you’re making progress. When you feel as if you’re making progress, you can be more optimistic or hopeful. That helps you see new possibilities.

I would rather work in a hopeful way, making progress on a project, than feel as if I’m dragging. What about you?

So, Agile might increase optimism, which allows us to make more progress and innovate. Agile done well brings joy to our work.

People are always asking me why Agile works, or to prove it works. I can’t prove anything.

I have said that in my experience, when people work in an agile way, they are more productive and more effective. Now I wonder if this is because they are optimistic and hopeful about their work.

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