The Agile values 20 years later
Back to the fundamentals, a personal angle on the manifesto, 20 years later
Happy anniversary : https://agilemanifesto.org
I have seen, and lived, trough a lot of oppressive stuff done in the name of it. I have consecrated two talks (and one article) to untangle why that happens (lack of diversity from the start, oppressive systems, power dynamics, capitalism etc) and things we could try (mutual-aid, anti-racism, critical pedagogy etc) But:
I do actually believe the 4 core values exposed are really solid so to celebrate let’s do a quick deep dive on them!
A value by any other name
First if the manifesto is but 4 values It becomes important to ask ourselves: What is a value?
For the sake of this article I’ll go with this working definition :
A value is something you’re ready to be a pain in the ass about.
A pain in the ass because, when the pressure of the system is to not do the thing you open your mouth to push people to do it.
Hence being a pain in the ass about it ?
If you’re not ready to bring it when it would be easier to shut up about it ? Not a value (under this simplified working definition).
So the manifesto is basically: 4 things those 17 people wanted to convince you to be a pain in the ass about.
Each one of those 4 values is a tension point:
<something I value more> over <something I still value a lot>.
The point being that you want to maximise <thing I still value a lot> up until the point is detrimental to <thing I value more>.
Like any healthy habit: it is balance.
The values are:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
But what do we talk about when we talk about that?
What is Agile?
Let’s dive into each:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
The manifesto was done by software people, and every piece of software is a tool!
Also Agilists keep selling you processes!
because tools and processes are AWESOME, until they are not.
We are but the ape that discovered tools first.
Every object around you? Clothes? Chair? Table? Device you are using to read this? Roof over your head? Language I am using to write this? Electricity?
We are the ape of instrumentalisation. It is our very identity.
We are also an ape ridiculously bad doing many small boring and repetitive steps many times without adding mistakes.
Also bad at accepting this deep down.
So there is always an ape within us telling us “you got this, small boring step is easy”.
This is why we need processes!
This is why we have flight checklists because it saves lots of lives:
One thing at a time: a brief history of the checklist
The pilot was known as extremely capable and meticulous, and 'an officer and gentleman of truly great distinction'. At…
This is why so much care and effort went into creating surgery checklists because, again, it saves lots of lives:
WHO Surgical Safety Checklist
The WHO Surgical Safety Checklist was developed after extensive consultation aiming to decrease errors and adverse…
A process will not make you good at any given task, no checklist will make you a good pilot or a good surgeon.
What they will do is helping you put a lot of little repetitive boring stuff out of your ape brain and into the environment, reducing mistakes:
Surgical checklist cuts deaths by 40%, study reveals
Surgeons in every hospital in the country will be required to run through a brief checklist before they operate, which…
So process are AWESOME!
- IF we see what we are getting out of following the process
- IF we own the process and the evolution of the process
- IF we care
And people WILL complain about having a process!
In part because deep down our ape is telling us we do not need one.
In part because processes are often forced down our throats and we do not see what we get out of following the process beyond “my boss/compliance told me I ought”.
Surgeons complained about surgery checklists because: it felt infantilising.
Process and tools are awesome UP AND UNTIL they are detrimental to people and interactions.
Until your colleague is asking you to get a paper receipt and a ticket number before they will talk to you at all.
Up and until your colleague is telling you that they will not help you until the Jira ticket has the information in the format that was convened.
Up and until you feel you need to create/join an underworld within your company just to get your job done at all.
Up and until the system of oppression starts using the process and the tool to bludgeon people.
So we have all seen it right? the point where the process and the tool helps, and the point in which it becomes toxic?
And maybe you have seen that in most big companies we enter deeply into the toxic territory? Why does that happen? And what to do?
For the “why that happens” my answer is :
Every big corporation fetishises control even if nobody within the corporation does
I have a talk about how does that happen recent versions are in french but here is an old version:
For the “What to do?” erm this will come up a lot but it does involve being a pain in the ass:
See, the manifesto invitation is not one of an easy solution in as much that it is a call to arms.
In a world inviting you to treat anything as a reason to control your peers, you rebel by “Connect before Correct”.
You take the time to interact with people and understand what they need and be understood in your needs.
You ask the eternal spice girls question: Tell me what you want, what you really really want?
This is only possible with safety so you start out by conspiring for safety with your peers, by caring.
And, together, you understand what do you get if anything out of your process and tool, and how could you get something out of it.
Of course taking the time to figure that out is time you are not on the short term producing, is time you are investing in you and your peers, in your health, in understanding the process and the company.
and your enemy becomes then the short sighted lens of productivism:
And that is why you will be a pain when you push towards connection, the system gets you under a state where you are always behind, always late, always not having the time to improve things, always measured by your production on the short term.
taking time to connect feels like wasting time then and it is hence suffered an the first step is to connect to that suffering.
Working software over comprehensive documentation
A.K.A. “Working <Product> over comprehensive documentation”.
A.K.A. “Drafts are actually cool and you should totally do them please”.
In the 90s it was common, and today it still happens a lot, that a project has a “study phase” where we try to understand everything we will do and document it before we start doing it.
I watched-by once as a project did 2 years of “study” before it started “doing”.
Some of those projects even went further and separated/segregated the people that did the “studying” from the people that did the “doing”.
And, do not get me wrong, documentation is awesome an understanding is awesome.
Documentation is all around you, we are very bad at doing it because we do not invest a lot in the skills one needs to do it but we do a lot of it.
Each email, each powerpoint, each post-it: documents.
Taking time before we do stuff to understand what we will do, to align, to discover and debate our disagreements: it is a powerful thing, it brings us together, it saves a lot of time that we would waste otherwise doing the wrong thing.
Expecting that understanding to be perfect before we start doing stuff tho? is the tension point where everything turns toxic.
This all happens because writing a book, racing a rally, writing software and most tasks one does today in most office jobs in big companies are creative tasks.
Creative tasks are not linear to effort and time.
Every job in its effort has a % of it that is “perspiration” and a % of it that is “inspiration” if you will And we are the apes that make tools and tools reduce the perspiration part, a lot.
So we tend to make most office jobs over time to be more and more the “inspiration” “creative” part.
but we still treat the jobs as if the ratio was more on the “perspiration”.
How do you know the difference? Cost of redoing from zero.
If you lose the entire last week of work and restart it from zero monday : how much time will you take to redo your work?
If you work is, say, cleaning floors (all the love and respect!): it will take one week.
That happens because you spend most of your week discovering stuff, what other problems arise when I start solving this one? where do I put this line of code? what does it mean to really solve this? etc.
Most of your work is spending discovering.
Now you could say: but Romeu! Then this is a good argument to understanding everything before we start is it not?
But thing is: doing the work actually makes you discover many things that would be too hard or impossible to see beforehand.
Also the battlefield changes while you are in battle, hence things like the OODA loop (that apparently where heavily inspired by the writings of Sun-Tzu)
The OODA loop is the cycle observe-orient-decide-act, developed by military strategist and United States Air Force…
But is it true of every problem tho?
No of course not, there are of course problems that we can fully understand before we solve them and problems that we cannot, in Cynefin terms we can talk about the domain of “Clear” vs “Complex”
But thing is
- Most companies add a LOT of unnecessary complexity to any given task.
- Once a given task becomes really “clear”, we tend to automatize it or at least tool-it a lot.
So over time we increase entropy, by design.
So most of our tasks in office jobs of big corps are deeply into the territory where what I am saying here holds true:
- With unknowns that we will uncover while doing
- with added complexities
and they are treated as they were the opposite!
This is by design of course, as in a company that fetishises control predictability becomes the quality sought-upon.
And hence there is a pressure to “get it right at the first time” and within that pressure throwing away is seen as waste deep down, no matter how much time it saves you.
this ties down deeply into our own biases of being apes addicted to the sensation of speed (a go kart feels fast) more than speed itself ( a boeing 747 does not feel fast) I talk more about this in this other gigantic thread here :
We cannot easily measure the gigantic cost of “trying to understand things perfectly before we do it” but we can easily measure that “throwing away is waste” and our measures become goals.
And yet, the act of doing can illustrate deeply your reflection on how and what to do.
And the act of thinking about doing can reduce the waste of doing it.
It is a dance, a balancing act.
You will be a pain in the ass when you try to push people towards balance.
And that is the invitation of the manifesto: to look at that moment where you are doing blindly and invite people to align/think/plan.
And look at the moment where you are lost in analysis and invite people to do a little with you.
And in both cases there is pain, and you’ll need to connect to that pain.
And when you’ll become a pain in the ass pushing towards that balance, your main enemy will become the short sighted lens of productivism, telling people that they should be in a hurry right now.
And the company that separates doers and thinkers is:
“The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fight[er] and the think[er] is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.”
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
A contract will probably save your company from bankruptcy someday.
Yet treating the ways we work together as pacts signed in blood is painful and oppressive.
Say, have you ever collaborated with someone under a Service-level agreement? (SLA) ? (I’m not saying SLAs are bad here, nor contracts in general, I’m just illustrating with a caricature, bear with me)
A service-level agreement ( SLA) is a commitment between a service provider and a client. Particular aspects of the…
If you have never seen it, a common SLA for example is when you have some people giving you a hotline to troubleshoot issues for example.
Commonly they will have some contract that will state that they have to answer you within X minutes and find a solution within Y time.
Now what usually happens here is that as soon as you send some problem to them, they instantly answer “received”.
And then it starts a ticking time bomb over their head.
And they try their best to solve your problem before that ticking time bomb explodes.
In order to feel a little safer what they will usually do is that they will ask you some question, you see?
If they ask you a question they can put your problem as “blocked” which pauses the ticking time bomb.
They can then work on solving it without a time bomb.
But as you receive a question and your incident ticket is marked as “blocked” waiting for answer you do not know if the other person is working to solve your problem or really blocked waiting for your answer do you? So what do you do?
You answer the question!
You could describe the above ping pong by many adjectives.
But not really by adjectives such as “pleasant” or “efficient” or “agile”.
And thing is, friends, you may ask yourself “why does this happens? why we keep doing this to ourselves if it hurts everyone?”
And my answer is Every big Corporation fetishises control and the fetishisation of control demands surveillance and punishment.
But thing is, we have MANY contracts, as a matter of fact most contracts are informal.
Under a fetishisation of control: Every email becomes a contract!
In fact, friend, here is the kicker:
Under a fetishisation of control:
- Every estimation becomes a promise
- Every promise becomes debt
- Every debt becomes a contract
- Every contract becomes a reason to punish people
- Every punishment breeds fear
- fear makes us see all as contract
You could ask yourself “what can I do about this?” We could have the same contracts, without changing a single line in them and yet change the way we behave around them.
IFF we find our collaboration to be more important than them.
But that requires that when we see others and ourselves punishing on contracts that we pushback against punishment, that we try to create a space where is safer to fail, but people also need to feel safe on the other side right?
mean the contract is already there to make someone feel safe? if you hire somebody to fix your bathroom, you want them to feel safe but you also want to feel safe yourself ? That your toilet will be fixed?
So we kinda need a model where our mutual safety is not a zero sum?
Even talking about it already tiptoes into someone’s safety! And hence once you’ll do it: you will be a pain in the ass.
And you will find that your enemy will be productivism whispering its song on the ears of people that running is better than changing.
Responding to change over following a plan
Following a plan brings stability, safety and also it really saves a lot of energy waste, really.
Following a plan when you have data that shows the plan is no longer valid? Toxic stuff.
Once I said the above to some clients and had this discussion with a marketing friend:
X: Romeu, maybe in IT, but on the biz side we are used to changing plans
Me: Do you agree that a budget is plan?
X: Oh… yeah… makes sense
Of course citing Eisenhower became a cliche for a reason:
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”
The act of planning, done without hierarchy: bring us together, show our naiveties, align us, solves issues, shapes the problem itself, strengthen our bonds.
But I will disagree with Eisenhower on plans being useless!
Following a plan? Actually rocks ! See:
People feel safer and more stable when they are following a plan because they feel they got this, safety is good but also and even more important:
Every time you are not following a plan you are spending some energy planning in real time, this mental labour, it adds up, it is a tax on your energy, on your time that constant navigation.
It is like the first time you go to a new job, and you keep second guessing yourself on the path, looking at the GPS, looking at the street numbers, that one time will take more time and energy and effort than all any future time.
When I give trainings sometimes I use a format where we chose a subject and every 25 minutes we vote what will be the subject of the next 25 minutes, for the whole day this is constant planning in real time.
For many people this is super tiresome tho and they’d rather have a plan.
Following a plan is awesome for the same reason train tracks are awesome : the known is highly optimisable for you can save a lot of energy with it.
This is all incredibly good: up and until the plan is no longer valid.
Up and until we are now lying to ourselves and others about the plan being valid.
Up and until we start punishing people because their invalid plan is no longer being followed.
The one thing to do when you see or think that a plan is no longer valid is to tell everyone right? tell yourself! tell the others! tell the world! it would be the most useful thing, void the plan as soon as it is no longer valid, re-plan if needed? Right?
But doing so means you are not predictable, and predictability is the most sought quality under a fetishisation of control.
and your plans impact other people’s plans that are also no longer predictable too and they will try to make you predictable
Also we spend so much time and energy planning than being the bearer of the bad news that the plan is no longer valid means also telling people we should re-spend that energy and time again which is painful and we avoid.
Also because predictability is the sought-after quality our entire planning process is so heavy (it needs to be precise you see?) that it becomes a huge cost per se and the idea of redoing it frequently becomes ludicrous !
Also, very important friends: planning is a process, everything I said in the process part becomes important but chiefly this: We are disconnected to what planning brings US we do it as paperwork that needs to be done for someone that control us.
So the cost, the alienation, the control-fetishisation all comes down into turning planning and plans and following plans into:
Something corrupted, Something oppressive: Bureaucracy.
The manifesto invites us to push back, to bring up the courage to tell ourselves and our peers and the world “the plan is no longer valid” when we see that it is the case.
Be it the plan for the year, the week, the day, the lunch a plan for action, budget or conversation-subject.
And in order to do that, if we are to bring that necessary news, the implicit invitation of the manifesto is that you adopt ways of planing that can be re-done frequently.
And in order to be re-done frequently they’ll probably need to be understood as valuable, sacrifice detail.
when you push for that, for that transparency of the limits of plans, for plans that are cheap to do and throw and redo and for people planning to get something out of that planning?
You’ll be a pain in the ass.
And you’ll meet our enemy: productivism. Productivism telling your colleagues that now is never the time to change how we plan stuff and that spending time planning is waste anyways and that we should just endure it brace ourselves, get it accepted and get to work.
And why should they not? fetichisation of control has already made their plan redundant, it was all pre-planned in budget and we are asking them to plan again and if they “get the plan wrong” they will be punished!
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy” — Albert Camus
Tell me: why?
Once I said all that, I have covered the “What” but then a very common question becomes the “Why” Why agile? why should we care about those 4 values at all?
Because the manifesto hand-waives that completely ! It pushed that under “better ways” without defining “better” brilliant right? And that, friend, is because there is no why, at least no unified why! See…
those 17 dudes? Looked from afar, they were very similar, at least they did very similar things, which got them to discuss about what they had in common, and what they had in common was 4 things they were a pain in the ass about, what they did not have in common? The why they did.
(the actually had a whole lot not in common I mean there are two dudes in the lot that are openly for trump etc, but you get my idea?)
The little I could piece together by asking them is: you had basically 5 warring camps with 5 different whys one camp had a why very in line with Lean : optimising global value people like Jeff Sutherland & Ken Schwaber where there.
Another camp wanted to maximise productivity, even if it meant wasting value, Alistair Cockburn told me once he was in that camp and that he was young and that he regrets it.
Another camp wanted to “solve the software crisis” they had a social agenda of reducing suffering even if that meant reducing value I am told people like Kent Beck and Ron Jeffries where part of that.
Me personally when my work was mostly with software people that used to be my why:
This is all very partial and caricatural and the above cited can probably do a better clarification, but the thing is: it is awesome that they did not had a unified why, it is precious, it is one of the most amazing things.
Because Agility then became that one thing that could unify people hungry for bottom line and the people fighting for better social condition.
Is this small and precious thing that both me and a moderate and a fash can probably agree upon and ain’t that precious?
And that explains also partially why it became so big a movement containing so many people that hate each other.
But also why it is so precious : even 20 years later it has momentum and you can try to use it to change things for the better in useful ways in your company today.
And for me that is reason enough.
But also the manifesto starts with “We are uncovering” Agility is not static You are never Agile there is no end state.
Anyway this article is a transcript of 1h talk a give A LOT to clients (twice per month probably) but have never given at a conference (the reasons is obvious : what conference would still want an agile 101 talk ?) I am glad to publish it in some form somewhere publicly tho, I published it on twitter before putting the twitter thread here in article form.