Agile — Individuals and Interactions

The Agile Manifesto tells us that we should value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Today I want to talk about this principle and what it means in the context of an organizational Agile transformation. I chose a picture of a rowing team because it symbolizes a group of individuals, working together towards a common goal. They must work in harmony, all pulling together, to achieve the desired outcome.

There are only a few things that I am certain about, but here is one. If a team does not have a clear, shared vision and sense of purpose they will not perform to their capabilities. You can put all the processes and tools in place and hire people with great skills and experience, but if they don’t understand what they are trying to achieve or why it is important, they will not apply themselves fully to achieving the goal.

I have had the privilege to work with some incredible teams in the game industry. What made them incredible? They were driven by a desire to build an awesome game. They understood the design and were excited about the features. Okay, it wasn’t perfect, and we didn’t always agree on the design and features, but you get the point. When the team is fired up, there is almost nothing they couldn’t accomplish. I watched junior guys come into the organization and become incredible engineers and artists because of the culture and level of performance of those around them. A high level of engagement is contagious. I used to keep a sign on my desk that said “Attitudes are contagious, is yours worth catching”. If you can create a culture of engagement and sense of purpose it will fuel incredible energy and productivity. Then you must channel that energy into the right activities to deliver value.

Valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools is about leadership; not titles. Great leaders get people to want to do what they want them to do. That is what shared vision and purpose are about. Another word we hear a lot on this topic is “context”. People need to understand the context. Don’t just tell them about the constraints (budget, timeline, technical, etc); explain them. Give them context so they know why those constraints exist. When you show the team the design concepts, make it a pitch with all the excitement and energy that you would give potential investors. After all, you are asking your team to invest in the project. You want them bought in.

I’ll make two more points before this blog post gets too long. Talk with, not to, individuals when you talk about the vision and purpose. It is good to have a big meeting with lots of excitement and marketing glitz to introduce the team to the project, but you also need to talk to each member of the team individually to make sure they understand why they are important and what their role is. Make it a conversation, not a lecture. And don’t do it just once. Have regular conversations with individuals about the project and their contributions.

The second point is about culture and encouraging individuals to work together to solve problems. You want them talking to each other freely and unconstrained. They need to collaborate, ideate, help each other and feel completely safe sharing their feelings and reservations about the work they are doing. This is the “interactions” part of what the Agile Manifesto is suggesting you should value. Interactions occur both within the team and with other teams and parts of the organization. The more openly communication flows and information is shared, the better the decisions will be and more comfortable all with be with those decisions.

Have you ever seen a championship basketball team play together? They are constantly talking to each on the court and seem to know what each other will do before they do it. They each have a unique role (diversity of skills), and they know their role and understand why their role and their actions are important to the success of the team. That is valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools. The coach may have a system, but on the court, the team must make decisions, trust each other and coordinate their activities.

As the manifesto points out, there is value in processes and tools. Just don’t let them get in the way of getting people to talk to each other.