Bottom-Up Change: The Agile Manifesto at 10

The most enduring and most people-positive change starts at the bottom: Bottom-Up Change. It starts with the few, then spreads to the many.

People-positive change is change that benefits the common good. The principles of the Agile Manifesto have improved my professional life as a software developer.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Agile Manifesto Turns 10

17 software developers convened in Snowbird Utah in 2001 to discuss lightweight development methods. Out of the Snowbird meeting came the Agile Software Manifesto.

The manifesto is a rallying cry: it says what we stand for and also what we are opposed to.
~Martin Fowler

Full Disclosure – Considering the arc of the Agile phenomenon, I am a newbie. The only reason I might have been at Snowbird in February 2001 was to re-live a romantic notion of myself as a ski bum. The truth is, I knew nothing about Agile methods until I joined a David Hussman coached team in 2006.

The advent of the 10th anniversary of the inception of the Agile Manifesto next February has me probing the nature of change and revisiting the stated principles in the manifesto.

The Nature of Change

On change, Nathaniel Branden said

The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.

Did Branden miss The Movement? Did he miss some steps before acceptance?

  1. Organization – Convening & engaging like-minds to rally around change;
  2. Inspiration – Inspiring first followers to virally grow change.

The most enduring change germinates at the bottom. The old saw

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

means people, like horses, will do what they have a mind to do. Directives, top-down plans, and top-down change rarely endure.

Shoehorning Agile

Agile doesn’t scale particularly well. People-centric principles in the Agile Manifesto fall by the wayside in the ponderous, profit-take-all organization. Agile principles like customer collaboration or individuals and interactions are summarily ignored in ponderous organizations because there’s ostensibly cheaper developers to be had in remote locations. That your organization dictates the use of cheaper developers, is a smell.

There are exceptions. To be sure the challenge of Scaling Agile has stoked an industry for consultants, coaches, and charlatans. But it’s a fools game.

Shoe-horning Agile into the ponderous, profit-take-all organization often – some would say inevitably – leads to a twisted Agile Lite bastardization where people must make do with sub-optimal conditions and where

process & ceremony trump humanity and practicality

Sub-optimal constraints are today’s reality. But at what point does leaning on people to absorb and adapt to sub-optimal constraints lead to diminished returns?

Dictatorships and oligarchies have been proven untenable time and time again. It seems Agile principles are at odds with current corporate charters.

Thinking Forward

The ponderous organization’s resistance to transformative change and transformative learning appears to be peaking. The antithesis of the ponderous organization, the Lean Startup, is gaining momentum. Lean startup principles are rooted in transformative learning.

Resisting transformative movements is unstable.

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.
~W. Edwards Deming

Lasting change and people-positive movements start with passionate people, then infiltrate into the cadres of controllers that infest ponderous organizations. Movement is sparked by passionate people who organize and inspire; not by cadres of controllers.

Agile at 10 years is a double-edged phenomena:  People continuing to do transformative work, and a growing numbers of ponderous organizations paying lip service to change.

Surfing The Transition Waves

I read the tail of a Twitter thread about the struggle of transitioning to agile at the organizational level.

The principals in the Twitter thread were Bob Marshall and Marcin Niebudek.

Transitioning command-and-control to agile seems to be a hand-wringing conversation. It’s more than a team thing. It can impact an entire organization. I have little to add except to make some observations about change and to consider the insights of historic thinkers.

Transitioning to agile conversations are peppered with phrases like

  • Personal comfort zone
  • Organization momentum
  • Change in thinking
  • Paradigm shift
  • Replace the naysayers
  • No silver bullets
  • No easy answers
  • No easy path

I get impatient with my incapacity to change. With others, I get very impatient. I’m reminded of Lou Reed‘s deliciously cynical lyrics in Dirty Blvd

Your poor huddled masses, lets club em to death
And get it over with and just dump em on the boulevard

Many great thinkers have considered and written about change

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed… Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool; the moist dries, the parched becomes moist… It is in changing that things find repose. ~Heraclitus

The inventor of the incandescent light bulb recognized that change requires a catalyst

Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress. ~Thomas Edison

An American novelist lamented that not all change is progress

All change is not growth; as all movement is not forward. ~Ellen Glasgow

An American romantic poet observed that those in power often resist

He who is firmly seated in authority soon learns to think security, and not progress. ~James Russell Lowell

In the take-no-prisoners civilized cultures we find ourselves in, we need to stay ahead of waves of change. Or get buried. Waves are fun, but can be treacherous.

I was a surfer as a teen. In surfing, you spot a swell forming. You paddle your surfboard to position yourself. Then wait. Then with the swell roiling and rising behind you, you fan the water beneath you with quick strokes. You feel yourself gaining momentum. The wave lifts your board then spews you forth. Down its face you slide. It is a ballet of recklessness and control. The swell appears. You position. The wave evolves. You adjust. The wave matures. You adjust again. It’s exhilarating.

In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. ~Eric Hoffer

Learners will stay ahead of the wave. Be prepared. Be patient.

Beginner’s Mind, Dumb Luck & Agility

Even mindful software developers become jaded and closed-minded.

We sink into complacency. We find ourselves spinning in the tire tracks of familiarity and comfort. We tell our business sponsors, “That’s just the way we do it”. We harbor habits-of-mind and insecurities that we hold onto because of ease and familiarity.

Beginner’s Mind, or Shoshin, means cultivating an attitude of openness and eagerness. It means establishing an innocence of preconceptions in one’s approach to something.

Beginner’s mind is the mind of child; full of curiosity, wonder, and amazement.

Can we approach our day-to-day tasks in such a way? Can we look at all of the aspects of our professional lives with this mind — open to see what there is to see?

We can. But it requires sustained practice, patience, and steady vigilance.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says,

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.

Beginner’s Mind and Dumb Luck are two sides of a coin — a coin that every developer needs nestled in his pocket protector. Beginner’s Mind is a mind that’s not already made up. It’s a mind in investigation mode — curious and open to whatever happens.

A Beginner’s Mind is ready to embrace Dumb Luck.

Friends, and master potters, Randy Johnston and Jan McKeachie-Johnston have a term for Dumb Luck that I prefer, calling it The Nourishable Accident. Working with a pliable material like clay, potters have to relax their expectations. Randy and Jan are forever mindful of opportunities in accidents. That is what makes their work sought after.

We know that agile teams embrace change. As practical agilists, perhaps our mantra should be to

Mine every change for its dumb luck.

That is, to see change as a child would: with Beginner’s mind.

Go now grasshopper. Bound off to Iteration Planning with Beginner’s Mind:

  • Recognize Change as Opportunity
  • Nourish the Accident
  • Mine the Dumb Luck