Scrum Notes 2013-20

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Agile: to do or to be? ▶️

I've read a few things recently claiming that "Agile" (or even "agile" without it's upper-case 'A') is a verb. Grammatical concerns aside, the point being made by this claim is that becoming an Agile organisation requires action. Yes, of course it does. But whether we say "let's agile up our processes" or "we're going to agile our way to success", or we actually use currently accepted English to describe what we are doing we'd be hard pushed not to do things at work, striving for agility or otherwise.

No one goes to work just to be, e.g. to be a project manager, to be a CEO, to be a software developer. At work we work. We complete tasks, we produce value. And we also engage, converse, problem-solve, write memos, make sandwiches, carve icons, hire people, fire people, and do a thousand other things every day. Work is doing, it is action.

It seems entirely superfluous to say an agile transformation requires action. Of course it does. Any transformation requires action. Staying the same requires action too—indeed, maybe even more action, certainly more effort! And being a person at work, a worker, requires action too. Being a project manager requires project management action. Being a software developer, designer, tester, cook, dishwasher, dog-walker, janitor, doula, social worker... being an anything requires the action that is expected of that thing, that role name.

Let's remember that "agile" is actually an adjective. It is a descriptive word. In the context we use it, taken (and expanded) from the manifesto for agile software development, it describes the quality (of the way of working) of a group or an organisation that is responsive to change. Given that any (work) organisation is a doing organisation, what makes an Agile organisation different? I believe it is its state of being that makes it different.

Those organisations that get caught up on the doing aspect of agility, encouraged by the "Agile is a Verb" proponents will be very active organisations, perhaps very busy organisations. They are likely to embrace ideas such as hyper-productivity and to have great output. Are they likely to have sustainability, engaged workers, healthy work environments? I would guess not. And my own experiences validate this guess.

Anyone can do agile things, and there are plenty of guides, books, coaches, consultants and trainers to encourage all the doing you need. Doing is easy, especially when it is doing what you're told, following the rules, following the leader. Being agile, embracing the quality of agility in your very being, that's much harder. It requires thinking for yourself, changing your mind, it requires experiencing your own and others' emotions, it requires mindfully breaking the rules, experimenting with new ideas, embracing failure and above all taking yourself lightly. Lightness of touch, after all, is a prerequisite for agility.

The question then is, how do I live out this state of agility? I suggest first stop "doing agile" and start engaging in thoughtful, meaningful actions where you know you are being true to your agile being. It is likely you'll need to confront some of your own deep-held beliefs.

Apart from that, I have no suggestions. Experiment. And sing.

Sheffield, 25/02/2019   comment