As the concept of Agile experiences a revival and becomes part of more and more conversations, it finds itself in a renewed frame concerning what it means as a potentially transformative way of thinking and not a mere way of working and what it signifies to the individual, not just the organization. As the concept evolves past project management into leadership and any other function of the organization that can also use fast, demonstrable results, it finds itself compared with other management frameworks such as Six Sigma or Lean and skeptics point out that, apart from a few exceptions, despite their evident advantages they are nowhere as widely spread of practices as they had been heralded in their time and this leads them to believe Agile will meet the same fate of oblivion.
The main difference could lie in the fact that, as compared to the two methodologies cited above, Agile starts at a very practical, results-driven place with undeniable desirable outcomes. Boards everywhere find themselves having to get over the initial eye-rolls and turned noses and approving large Agile transformation processes – at times for the entire organization in every department- not because they have personally seen the light -and this may come back to bite in time- but because they see clear numbers and want to have the same speed and accuracy of delivering new technology and results as the fully Agile organizations they see consistently keeping customers happy.
What some people -boards included- fail to realize about Agile is that doing it “by numbers” is doomed to eventually fail as it requires a lot more depth of emotional investment than any other method or way of work. This is because Agile is a state of mind and a philosophy above a mere set of practices and processes and as such, it forces practitioners to look inside themselves both at organization and individual level.
This on the macro level, explains the push-back some segments of some industries give it. The “Agile isn’t for *everything*” type objections are typically flippant and unfounded and meant to avoid closer examination. They mean that as it isn’t the cure-all that applies to every part of the business in grave need of radical transformation. But is that assumption correct?
What do we need Agile for?
Not For Speed But For True Collaboration
Speed of delivery is an undeniable result of applying Agile to software development but to obtain that, this way of work requires real collaboration in a throw-back to the team values of yesteryear where truly working together towards a common goal was key to making anything happen. Whichever virtual or real life board or tool one uses in Agile and irrespective of which variation they have signed up to implement, the scope is constantly reinforced; the end goal constantly stated and -hopefully- examined; the reason for making whatever it is that is being created always reframed and declared. This helps deeply align the team. Once that team is “sold” in their heart of hearts towards why they are building something and why they are building it in this way, they are infinitely more likely to care enough to truly help each other to do so.
In a time when in their work lives everything looks open from office spaces to tech tools, workers often find themselves feeling insular and isolated and to counteract that, company posters simply mandating collaboration don’t work, whereas Agile lets everyone’s true collaboration instinct come out.
For Finding Family
Psychological Safety is the core concept and main success lever for any productive team. Feeling supported and safe in one’s team is undeniably the single most basal need of workers everywhere. While this is true for all ways of work, Agile in particular demands a team that feels safe. In Maslow’s pyramid of needs examining what it is that humans require, safety is at the very basic levels of that pyramid. Beyond physiological needs such as shelter, nourishment, etc, feeling secure is the basal need to be fulfilled and without it humans can’t function and that is true irrespective of the environment that human is in, so no less applicable to work.
Right above safety as we go up the pyramid we find the need for “love and belonging” and while in our numbers-and-bytes-obsessed society this topic is often regarded as a weakness and consigned to the corners of the discourse where rainbow unicorn gif’s live, it is an intensely important human need that in large organizations is becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy outside of the 4 cubicles radius and the common interests groups. Agile requires so much of people as a team that the feeling of belonging follows undeniably strong and paradoxically, it makes many practitioners push back even further at first, as they have no frame of reference for feeling like they are part of a real family (or tribe) at work.
Being part of a family feels warm, safe and comfortable whereas outside of start-ups or family businesses, in large organizations in particular, work seems to be meant to feel hard, unpleasant or even painful in most workers’ experience so finding Agile is a moment of intense reckoning.
For The Value
Going up that same pyramid, next we see humans need esteem – they need to be respected and feel like they are valuable. Agile gives those who understand and use it, a sense of self-worth that’s documentable to the business by how its KPI’s are so unequivocally speeding it up.
In a sense, the staples of Agile – the velocity and the accuracy of the results are a metaphorical “l told you so” from the part of the long overlooked and undervalued hard-working teams in the field who are now allowed to use new methods and operate in an intelligent fashion thanks to a fast process, so can show the business how valuable they really are.
Not only that, but being open, honest and vulnerable as a practice in this safe new family they built, they get to shine and show their worth in front of the people that matter the most – their teammates.
For The Sake Of The Challenge
Last, on the very top of the pyramid and a luxury most people don’t associate with their professional lives with surveys showing they attach little to no value to their sense of self through their work accomplishments – Self-actualization.
In Agile change is welcomed; honest and constant dialogue is necessary; vulnerability is celebrated; nothing is ever “done”; things are eternally in flux and often difficult and all this means that it can be intense and demanding.
The mechanism through which human constantly test their own abilities is by accepting challenges and in Agile, holding yourself and others to the highest of standards while questioning next steps and greater purpose at every corner is fundamental. Some claim Agile only suits overachievers as it’s demanding that the worker be the best version of themselves they can be, but that presumes only the triathlon athlete types like challenges and have a need of self-actualization, and that is simply untrue as the need to be better is there for each and every one of us even if the work culture we are in, hasn’t been able to cultivate that.
For The License To Be Human
There is no way to really become Agile without exercising some of the best human qualities starting with empathy and passion. Contrary to popularized belief that nerds or geeks -or whatever other terms we associate with tech teams- are all but incapable of having emotions, the success of Agile shows without a shadow of a doubt, that is utterly false. Developers, product owners and project managers everywhere have been able to tap into deep reserves of understanding and kindness to make Agile work.
Often times, being vulnerable, open, creative, innovative and fully emotionally invested is an eerie and difficult exercise for teams of consummate professionals but in achieving Agile organizations, the willingness to emotionally push themselves is evident and it consistently pays off.
Technology changed everything and Agile is arguably one of the fastest ways to access technology so it is placed right in the middle of that change which is why it elicits strong responses from both converts and persistent laggards holding on to a hope that it will “go away”.
Being introspective and willing to be emotionally intelligent in particular in a work environment where there’s institutionalized paralysis of thought is hard. Holding a mirror to search for intensely human qualities like courage and passion is extremely uncomfortable. Being vulnerable enough to admit all these needs at work is painfully counterintuitive but all of the above are necessary to re-design the future of work around new, healthy, collaborative, empathic and purposeful habits, not convention and acronyms.
Agile is not business, it’s personal but so should everything else be in our work lives. It’s ok to be personal. To feel, to think, to be human.