Breath In #Agile

If you’re not reading my other “Chasing Psychological Safety” newsletter then let me say: Happy New Decade! (applies if you are reading both too, for the avoidance of doubt :)) 

This decade will truly see Agile happen. Not in overt, declarative ways but in organic, VUCA serving ways. It has to. I know many of us roll our eyes with “the manifesto is tens of years old, dude!” fatigue, but this is finally, truly it.

No business that is unable to be Agile will be around in 2030. Not one 100% on-premise anti-cloud, sequential thinking, waterfall organization left in sight by then. With the speed and level of demand of the world, all these topics have firmly moved from “nice-to-have” to “mandatory-for-survival”. Just watch, the last bastions of stubborn demagoguery, control freaks and inflexibility will start dissolving as it becomes obvious old ways of thinking are not sustainable.  

The next two articles are about servant leadership and decentralised decision making and the role of a leader in Agile teams as well as how ego is ruining Agile for business and how impression management plays into it, but while preparing those, I thought the beginning of the year, may be yet another occasion to indulge in my eternal obsession: You can’t have the WOW (way of working) without the WOT (way of thinking) and to get the WOW and the WOT in your team or the organisation you have to be obsessive about your own mindset.

People who don’t really have the WOT are easy to spot after a while. We’ll be in a meeting with them and think “nah, you would have never said that if your thinking was truly flexible and you were empathic and smart enough to have collaboration in your DNA” – alright, maybe we don’t put it quite like that, but we know instinctively who “doesn’t get it”. 

We recognise people who do “Agile by numbers” as I like to call it. Either that they go through the motions because the enterprise has mandated it or, even worse, regurgitate passionate snippets of unqualified PR about it. We silently call out those who want to keep “to the letter” in our mind and we deplore things done for the sake of the project and with no regard for what it actually means to the end customer. We see it, we observe it, we feel it in out bones. 

Where it is harder to see and where it gets trickier to recognise, is within ourselves. As we said many times on this newsletter and it’s worth reaffirming, Agile is so not easy and it takes constant, relentless work to remain sharply focused on why we’re doing it. It’s hard to ensure the new ways of thinking are cleanly upheld and none of our previous working life bad habits sip in and they surely will in the absence of incessant mindfulness and self-checks. It can and it will slip without a “practice” of constant self-challenge.

To drive this home, I think we need to compare it to meditation. Everyone knows its advantages on paper, its benefits well-proven clearly with study after study reaffirming how gratitude, positivity and mindfulness, in general, make us healthier both at home and at work and yet most of us shun it -be it by disparaging it or by silently refusing to try- because it’s hard. 

Firstly there are those who use one of my biggest pet peeves: the excuse of no time – which makes me want to scream and shake them to make some! Lao Tzu said it better “Time is a created thing, to say “I don’t have time” is to say “I don’t want to”.

And it does take time. For one thing, it takes (or should take if enough initial emotional investment and drive!) conscious habit formation. The dreaded 3 weeks or 21 days or 30 days where repeating a certain behaviour makes it part of your routine are just the way life is, and there’s no getting around that investment if we’re serious enough about change or betterment. So there’s no avoiding the fact that you have to have more than the goodwill to try it but a strong enough intention to keep to the few minutes a day you decided on for a set amount of time before it becomes second nature. 

Meddled in with the lack of time excuse, there’s one about the environment to do this in. There’s a largely held misconception that one needs an earthy decor in a room inundated with candles, incense, Moroccan throw pillows and the soothing sounds of a waterfall before they should engage in it. Not so. 

And then there are those who have tried enough times to know that at first you’re constantly battling a sense of self-doubt and wondering if it’s silly and if it works, fighting your busy mind with every try.  

So yeah, in short – it’s not easy, and we all have a bunch of excuses not to do it. Just like we have plenty of excuses not to eternally check the way we think and ensure it’s truly and deeply Agile.

The good news is that if we simply reframe some of our perceived complaints we can get a hang of meditation. There’s a famous app called “10% Happier” backed by Dan Harris and inspired by his awesome book, which has a tagline around “Meditation For Fidgeting Skeptics”. It brilliantly acknowledges the majority of the excuses and teaches people how to get rid of them and enjoy the benefits of making at least some effort in the mindfulness department while commuting on the train. 

No matter what app you use or how you do it, one of the core principles of mindfulness is to “return to the breath” every time your mind wanders. For those unfamiliar with it, in meditation, you’re meant to free your mind but that’s near impossible and you’ll soon find yourself thinking of the next meeting or the shopping list, however, if you simply focus on the breath again you can clear your mind. 

These days there are even apps and devices measuring how successful we are at doing that -returning to the breath and quietening the mind- such as the Muse – a headband sensing your brainwaves to figure out if you’re managing mindfulness and peace or are replaying last night’s Game of Thrones episode in your mind instead-. 

So what’s to keep us honest and on track with our Agile self work

For one thing, the equivalent to the return to breath which I put it to us is the return to the manifesto. Think of it often enough and it will be transformative – hell make it a goal to recall it once a day. Not verbatim but the big topics – people before process, working product not mindless documentation, flexibility and feedback and customer above all. Check your thoughts and interactions against the principles. Do they stand up to scrutiny? You’re good to go and on track. They don’t? Take action, remind yourself and others what the deeper point is. 

If there was an app equivalent to Dan Harris’ it would be “Agile For Fearful Nay-Sayers” and it would celebrate incremental change and minute progress with big chapters on the principles above – there’s a question – with the many consultancies selling ways of work “transformations” why isn’t there one such app already?-.

And I wish we had a Muse headband for Agile that worn through a stand-up, or even better, a retro, would tell us how focused on the breath aka the manifesto principles we remained throughout. “This huge change has been suggested and you were open-minded and excited, at minute 9:34”; “ Sadly at minute 13:23 you thought inflexible thoughts” or even, at the very least “At minute 3:04 you impression managed, maybe you were afraid to speak up, look incompetent, negative, ignorant or intrusive” that way, we stand a chance to correct, reflect and become mindful of it again.  

We don’t have any of those things. What we do have -hopefully- is the knowledge that Agile is THE way and then it’s worth the effort to keep both ourselves and others anchored in the breath of the principles and incessantly ask ourselves: “Am I #Agile “yet?” or “Am I #Agile “still”?

Until next week: may your breaths be deep, easy and mindful.

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