Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Agile via Sound Bites

There was a long, multiparty discussion on the XP mailing list recently. A fellow was struggling with some issues about self-managed teams and taking direction from the Customer. There was a lot of misunderstanding going on.

It reminded me that Agile is something that takes some training and coaching. I'm not currently in the "agile coach for hire" business currently, so I'm not just drumming up work here when I say that any team considering a transition should hire a good coach. Hearing a few words about agile at a convention, reading an article or two (or a few newsgroup posting, God forbid!), or watching a video lecture are not sufficient training for agile practice.

Agile software development is clearly not brain surgery. The ideas are simple and deep. The problem is that the sound bites are pithy and (to the outsider) pretty shallow-sounding. The case in point is that the mailing list participant had the entirely wrong idea about what a self-managing team is, and what it means to the organization. After many cases of asking the wrong questions (challenging a false impression instead of asking what one wants to know) the visitor realized that he'd fallen prey to sound bites without having a fully story. That can happen to anyone, anywhere. I've done it.

But agile software is about values and practices that help live out the values. It is simple, but goes very deep. A lot of things can't be easily understood from a cursory glance or a seminar days or weeks or months ago. The best way to have success in a transition is to have a coach (or maybe two?) come and lead the teams into the proper forms and functions. Eventually a team can tailor the process and manage themselves, but they have to learn the way first.

Now I'm working at a pretty successful agile shop that I helped transition last year. It's nice here. They get it. Bob Koss and I spent time getting the right practices in place and teaching the values. It's a good gig. But they didn't get here from watching a couple of Agile videos, or reading a skinny book.