#Agile And Happiness

I have few heroes and even fewer role models but of the people I look up to, some are the initial signatories of the Agile Manifesto the likes of Alistair Cockburn or Martin Fowler alongside others who may not have been there for it but fathered it since and redefined how we see work and software development such as Kent Beck or Mike Cohn.

Mike sent out this “What I want for an Agile Christmas” piece yesterday. You should read the piece for yourself as there’s a lot of great advice in it (and to my mind some controversial bits too as Mike shuns measuring performance whereas I think it just needs redefining away from Agile KPIs and into human qualities such as our appetite for learning, attitude to failure or ability to be empathic and therefore psychologically safe in the team) but the part that got me thinking the most was a premise he offers on behalf of the developer “I love it here or I’d leave”. 

In a world where exceptional knowledge workers are scarce and therefore respected and highly sought after, that sounds right and would stand to reason, but I think that is only the case for a small proportion of the “digital elite” and the vast majority of software developers of various flavours, in various industries, are nowhere near as happy or as secure. 

We’ve met tens, nay, hundreds of developers who, despite valuable and wanted on the job market, are not truly considering mobility at all. We met even more who seem satisfied but only as an act of resilience as when you dig deeper their team lacks psychological safety, the PO or scrum master are perceived to be toxic or the entire purpose is muddy and disconnected so they are masking deep in satisfaction and are simply paralysed in the job they are in.

Valley developers who can reportedly be paid so much they start being able to afford bad habits as the folklore has it may indeed be that impossibly satisfied in addition to well-remunerated but they are not the norm and the vast majority of programmers and generally knowledge workers elsewhere, are no different from other office workers in how they feel in their workplace. 

Dealing with developers for whom the nuances of practical, real-life Agile matter, is already showing Mike’s elitist bias. He is exposed to the more fortunate as opposed to the overwhelming majority of knowledge workers whose organisation is nowhere near becoming Agile. In other words, the few that Mike is speaking to, who need a scrum master to uphold principles over rigid rules, and a PO to communicate value and stay accessible, maybe a lot happier and elective in staying put in the enterprise, but they are also the exception. The vast majority of developers stay put for a multitude of complex motivations from fear of change, to the difficulty of forging new relationships and are therefore not as obviously happy as Mike presumes. 

Which -finally- brings me to the point of today’s article – what if doing #Agile and eternally, religiously, returning to the letter and the spirit of the manifesto is a privilege reserved for those of us fortunate enough to be secure and in possession of enough self-esteem, brand stability and professional maturity? What if much of the failure we see around us from going off on ill-understood tangents to “fragile” and lip-serviced, reluctant implementations, what if it’s all the result of a collection of individuals impression managing and being afraid to be authentic, vulnerable and honest? 

In other words, what if one can only ever remember the ideological tenants of the mindset and return to them over and again even when uncomfortable, if one has a multitude of less than common work-life blessings from autonomy to feeling empowered and appetite for learning and failure and finally, to a high degree of esteem? What if going back to the sine qua non conditions such as focusing on the people, not the process or the technology, -whether those “people” are customers or our own team- is only a luxury the more established and happy professionals have? 

For the rest – without feeling like they can affect change, without believing their worth is clear and crucial and without feeling called upon to think and feel, what are the odds they can ever insist on going back to basics, that they can call for all to remember the spirit of the manifesto or even that they can do a regular #Agile self-check?

I “hear” the eye-rolls: “Wait a minute, so the “failed transformations” and the half-baked Agile implementations are now an employee satisfaction issue?” what if they are? What if we’ve left the idea of probing in-depth into the well-being of our people so far behind, that none of the big things work? What if we have human debt, not tech-debt? Relationships to clean and fix, not code? Team dynamics and health to test, not features?

This isn’t an encouraging, happy and optimistic end-of-year post – it’s also not the last this year, so I resolve to make that one sunnier- but it’s something for us all to ponder. What if having true #Agile as a CI/CD of organisational betterment with hearts and minds firmly immerse into the magical promise of it all, is only possible with individuals who are happy to bring their whole self to their work? 

It would explain a lot if our collective failure of moving fast enough in having this way of thinking be omnipresent, is linked to our failure to have our people established, happy and whole in the workplace, and therefore if we genuinely want the former, we should work on the latter. 

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