Early agile processes, invented in the 20th Century, punted on the question of “why are we building what we’re building?” They said “the business” tells us what to do and then we deliver in an agile way. The closest we ever came to purpose was to “satisfy the customer” through the early delivery of software.
That’s not a very inspiring purpose. Furthermore, teams need to be inspired about their purpose, not simply “handed a backlog by the business.”
A team’s purpose could be
- to send a human to the moon and have them return safely
- to cure cancer
- to make updates to cars wirelessly, so customers need not schedule and come in for maintenance appointments
- to help engineers self-learn TDD, Refactoring, Microtesting (and more) with speed and grace, for a reasonable price.
Some organizations define a purpose as a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).
In The New New Product Development Game, Nonaka and Takeuchi spoke about the “built-in instability” of a challenging purpose. They observed that great leaders give important goals with “challenging requirements” to teams and then give those teams the freedom to decide how to execute on those goals. The goals are so ambitious, while not being impossible, that teams aren’t even sure how they’ll accomplish them.
Faced with a BHAG, many teams must re-think everything. In Smarter, Better, Faster, Charles Duhigg wrote about how Japanese train engineers spent nearly a decade rethinking and reengineering everything about trains and tracks in order to produce bullet trains.
Make People Awesome, Modern Agile’s first principle, is centered on BHAG thinking, on having a purpose that is not easy to achieve but which will have an incredible outcome, if successful. Whatever product or service we create, we focus on making the customer awesome and we widen that focus to include everyone associated with making, funding, buying, selling and supporting our product/service.
Without a purpose, how can a team be genuinely agile?
I believe that all agile teams need a purpose, ideally an inspiring one, that they, as a team, own together. This is far more effective than simply being an order take, or “orderneer” (an engineer who takes orders). The best teams I’ve worked on were actively involved in customer issues and focused on inventing a far better future for those customers.
What’s your BHAG?