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The Agile Mindset - Beginner's Mind and Fundamentals
When you hear hoofbeats, first look for horses, then zebras.
(This article is part of an on-going series dedicated to developing Agile mastery. Each post offers value to students on this journey, however, there is an advantage to those who start at the beginning.)
Somewhere along the path of studying Aikido for 25 years I found a useful perspective on the art that applies to a lot of skills in life. Aikido is simple. It's a way of living that leaves behind it a trail of techniques. What's hard is overcoming the unending stream of little frustrations and often self-imposed limitations. What's hard is learning how to make getting up part of falling down. What's hard is healing after getting hurt. What's hard is learning the importance of recognizing when a white belt is more of a master than you are, black belt notwithstanding. In short, what's hard is mastering the art.
The same can be said about practicing Agile. Agile is simple. It is four values and twelve principles. The rest is just a trail of techniques - rapid application development, XP, scrum, Kanban, Lean, SAFe, TDD, BDD, stories, sprints, stand-ups - all just variations from a very simple foundation. Learning how to apply the best technique for a given situation is learned by walking the path toward mastery - working through the endless stream of frustrations and limitations, learning how to make failing part of succeeding, recognizing when you're not the smartest person in the room, and learning how to heal after getting hurt. It's about learning how to avoid pounding on a screw with a wrench. What's hard is developing an antifragile Agile mindset.
If an Aikido technique you are trying to apply to an opponent isn't working, your choice is to change how you're performing the technique, change the technique, or invent a new technique based on the fundamentals. Opponents in life - whether real people, ideas, or situations - are notoriously uncompromising in this regard. The laws of physics, as they say, don't much care about what's going on inside your skull. The Universe is cruelly indifferent when it comes to accommodating your beliefs about how things "should" go.
The same applies to Agile practices. If something doesn't seem to be working, it's time to step in front of the Agile mirror and ask yourself a few questions. What's the problem behind the problem? What is it about the fundamentals you're not paying attention to? What technique is being misapplied? What different technique will better serve?
When individuals, teams, or an Agile organization struggle, look first to the fundamentals. It's rare that Agile isn't working. More often, Agile probably is working as designed in one very important way: Illuminating all the hidden or invisible facets of old patterns that are failing. Small consolation to those with uninformed expectations when a deadline looms and the "promises" of Agile appear to be coming up short.
When the decision makers and authority roles have either drifted away from the fundamentals or never actually took the time to understand and practice them, the outcomes are easy to predict. Individuals and teams take their cue from authority figures in an organization and if leaders aren't aligned with what Agile requires, teams will suss this in a heartbeat and behave accordingly.
There can, of course, be much more insidious systemic issues in play. Determining if that's the case can wait until a health check on the fundamentals is done. In fact, the larger systemic issues are usually resolved, or at least minimized, by putting the leverage on changing something fundamental. The key is knowing where to place the lever.
If you have any questions, need anything clarified, or have something else on your mind, please use the comments section or email me directly.