My wife dragged me off to do yoga one morning recently and I’m glad she did. The instructor really got me thinking with some of her instruction. She had a theme around how yoga is not the poses or the positions or even the movements, but rather a state of mind.
She repeatedly pressed us to get in a yoga mindset: the mindset of balance, centering, and relentlessly seeking effectiveness with our bodies in such a way that it propels us not just through the yoga session, but through the rest of our lives. Pretty existential stuff, really, but it was resonating with me for some reason this morning. Maybe it was because it was early and I just had an open mind, but while she talked, I kept thinking about how what she was saying related to business agility.
I’m an Agile transformation consultant,so this conversation around what constitutes “Agile” comes up repeatedly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “If you aren’t doing <practice>, then you’re really not Agile,” and I grimace a little, remembering that exact thinking in myself a while back. In 2002, when I first started learning about Agile, I eagerly fired off a message to Ron Jeffries. Ron is an original signer of the Agile manifesto, and I asked for a short list of the “required” Agile practices. His response was unexpected. He said I was focusing on the wrong stuff and to reorient my thinking. “It is not about Agile,” he said. “It's about excellence.”
It’s not about Agile. It's about excellence.
I’d like to say that I “got it” immediately, but I didn’t. I’ve been working with organizations around Agile transformations in one form or another for what seems like ages, and I still catch myself being a bit dogmatic at times; maybe we all do. I think it is human nature to want to get some solid answers even when there is no single “right” answer. I guess it goes to show we are all learning all the time.
Websters defines Agile as “able to move quickly and easily.” It does not mention process(es) or practice(s) but rather alludes to skill or ability; a way of being. Being in the learning, the discovery, the unfolding of how to become excellent is very different from learning the steps to a new process, new templates, or new tools. Learning, whether it is learning to drive a manual transmission, or learning a new approach to solution delivery, requires us to be open to the ongoing discovery of the domain.
This is an important distinction for me because it points to a different manner of adoption. As the saying goes, we have to learn to crawl and to walk before we can run, but that doesn’t seem to stop us from trying to get ahead of ourselves. I’ve witnessed teams where a light has gone off and they become thoroughly committed to Test Driven Development (TDD). The approach is proven to help teams “be” Agile rather than just go through the motions. There are real, measurable competitive advantages.
That being said, I’m not big on “best practices” without context. Test driving is a very good practice depending on what you are out to do with it. There is a significant initial learning curve, but it has repeatedly been a way for teams to increase both velocity and agility. It helps them automate in a multitude of ways and be responsive when new requirements emerge or changes are needed.
Being Agile rather than just going through the motions has real, measurable advantages.
Agility is not just flexibility in how to do things, but in what we choose to do. If that were not the case, it would be called “static” rather than “Agile.” So, the next time you hear yourself, or someone else, saying “you have to do <blah>, to be Agile…question, with all sincerity, whether that particular practice really produces agility.
Websters is helpful. By saying agility is the ability to move quickly and easily, it helps us orient around skill rather than practices or rituals. That yoga instructor was helpful too, though. She helped me see that adopting an agile mindset means that we can focus on a few fundamental things while still maintaining the latitude to do them in a multitude of ways.
The yoga instructor was articulating it very well this morning. It is not about the practices we are doing that everyone sees, but rather, our own story, on the inside, of why we are doing them, and our relentless pursuit of excellence. The ability to move quickly and easily is a learned behavior. The world keeps changing and we keep learning, and as such, our answers around what constitutes business agility will likely keep changing too.