Monday, February 14, 2011

"Agile Sadist". Really? REALLY?!?

Yes, really.

No, I don't show up at work decked out in a full leather jumpsuit, whip in hand, impatiently waiting for the first hapless developer to come scuttling by. If my professional colleagues and co-workers can be believed, I'm actually not that bad to work with on a daily basis, at least as long as there isn't any Dilbert-esque sort of shenanigans going on in the organization.

Before I dive into why I'm risking guilt by association with one of the more "colorful" genres of adult entertainment, let's clarify something about what Agile means, at least to me. Around 4 or 5 years ago I was sitting with Jeff Patton, discussing whatever it was at the time that was interesting to us, when an "aha" showed up in our conversation. It seemed important enough at the time to warrant writing down, so we did:

It says: "Agile adoption isn't process adoption - it's culture adoption"

Culture is defined as "the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social,ethnic, or age group". Practices that do not align with underlying cultural principles are at best ineffective. Take the example of the stand-up meeting. How well does the stand-up give early warning of trouble if there isn't sufficient personal safety within the culture to allow someone to bring bad news to the attention of the group?

But I digress. Back to the point.

The "Sadist" term was chosen (very carefully, I might add) for two reasons. The first, and most important, was a realization that individual and organizational behavioral change isn't just influenced through positive means. Whether we like it or not, humans have evolved more mechanisms for changing behavior based on negative stimuli than we have for positive behavior. It doesn't take a three day certification seminar to teach you that fire isn't something that should be handled with bare skin.

Before you jump to conclusions here, understand that I am not advocating that your team be used for practice by novice hibachi chefs if they fail to deliver a release on time. But understand that pain and discomfort, whether it be physical, emotional or intellectual, is an effective tool for changing behavior.

Not exactly a happy thought, is it? Rest assured that unless the organization that you're trying to effect change in is the military or some sort of terrorist group, physical pain isn't on the menu. To be honest, even the term "pain" isn't on the menu. When I talk about using "pain" as a means of effecting cultural adoption, what I really mean is "discomfort".

Here's an example. Once upon a time there was a small company that has more than one stakeholder for a specific software product in the same office as the development team. Each time a stakeholder needed something in the software, they'd go to an individual on the team and demand that it be done now, regardless of what was being worked on. It suffices to say that there was a fair bit of thrashing going on.

To change this "back-channel feature request" behavior, I decided to make sure that the discomfort of shifting priorities was felt directly by the stakeholders and not just the development team. The stage was set by getting the stakeholders to agree to discuss any changes with the rest of the stakeholders before they could go into the current iteration. As each stakeholder had been bitten by changes before, they readily agreed to the change. I think it was a day later that a stakeholder came in with a request. Their argument of "it'll just take a minute" didn't dissuade the team from calling a stakeholder discussion on the spot. Not only did the stakeholders deny the change, they admonished the originating stakeholder for disrupting the team.

It didn't take many of these negotiations to change the behavior of the stakeholders.

The second reason for choosing "Sadist" is a bit more personal. More than once in my life I have been accused of unnecessary hyperbole to get a point across. Guilty as charged. What I've learned though is that hyperbole is a good tool for generating interesting discussions. If I had fashioned myself as an "Agile Organizational Discomfort Enhancer", I'd probably lose interest in what I had to say before I'd even finished forming my response. But as a self-professed "Agile Sadist", I can honestly say that there has been no lack of interesting discussions to be found in the Agile community.

Oh, and another interesting thing about hyperbole - it's a sort of a hybrid intelligence/awareness test. Most people don't look past the hyperbole to see what is really there. For the few that do, it's nice to have them announce themselves by saying:

 "That's interesting. What do you really mean by that?".

1 comment:

  1. +1 Nice post :-)
    Agile is a state of mind. You *are* agile. You don't *do* agile.

    Oh, one nit: I would say the training to fear fire is not a perfect analogy -- though I get your drift. Fire actually hurts us. The nearly(?) autonomic reflex to not touch something hot doesn't even go all the way to the brain for logic processing. We just react.

    On the organization/cultural/personal side of behavior, the negative aspects are often not present, or not as clear as with fire. Hence many folks/teams/orgs continue to repeat sub-optimal behavior & process because it doesn't hurt that much.

    We need to expose the pain and make it as easy to learn proper, positive, behavior as in the fire case you cite.