Thursday 5 June 2014

The Three Elements of Agile

Dear Junior

Not that I necessarily claim to be an old hip-hopper, but an interesting part of the hip hop culture is the concept of "the four elements". 
  • Breaking - more commonly known as breakdance
  • MC - more or less what rap is about
  • DJ - you know disk-jockey
  •  Graffiti - public painting
An interesting thing is that within the hip hop community it is commonly agreed that all four elements are needed. If you should take away any of them, the hip hop culture would not be whole, it needs all four of them to be complete.

Also, all the elements are on the same level. That MCing should be "higher" than graffiti, or vice verse, is an idea that would be refuted as ridiculous. All the elements are of equal importance and each indispensable. 

Obviously, the individual hip-hopper might not practice all of the elements. He or she will most probably immense in one of them. A few might practice two or three. Some might practice all four but are certainly not expected to master all of them.

Still there are a lot of respect between practitioners of the different elements: a talented MC easily gives public cred to a vicious graffiti painter. They are both needed and they would both feel poorer without the other. 

The four elements must be in balance for the hip-hop culture to thrive.

Well, that sounds all nice and cosy. But what does that have to do with agile?

I think the Agile community have a similar situation. Cutting the cake with a blunt knife I see three elements within the "agile culture": tech, process and organisation. OK, the knife is blunt so the cuts might not be perfectly clear, but I think it suffice to clarify my point.

Agile Tech consists of the technologies we have developed and use for the direct building of software. In this category we find frameworks as Hystrix for resilience; we find products as nosql-databases; we find tools as Chaos Monkey. Aside from the code we also have the close-to-code practices like Test-Driven Development, Domain-Driven Design, Continuous Integration, Build Pipelines etc. All these things enable us directly to write awesome software.

With "process" in Agile Process I simply mean "the way we work". We work in sprints á la Scrum, or WIP-limited continuous flow á la Kanban; we demo at regular intervals; we use information radiators and stand-ups to synchronise work; we make forecasts to synchronise our work with other departments; we run retrospectives after sprints and projects to have a structured learning etc; we set targets and measure progress visavi effect goals, e g using Impact Mapping.

Finally Agile organisation is about how we structure ourselves. Within teams we self-organise, sure, but this is what we do on a larger level as well. We must ensure that information propagate across the organisation in a sound way; we want the architecture to stay reasonably consistent, preferably without a command-and-control chief architect. We must also synchronise and prioritise initiatives across this organisation so we also find portfolio management and finance/funding practices like Beyond Budgeting. Last but not least we find Agile HR/Agile Talent Management as part of this element.

Each agile practitioner might not do all the elements. On the contrary, most will stay mostly within one element or have their foot-hold in one and cross over to the other. 

Comparing to the hip-hop culture I must claim that the agile community is not complete without all three elements. Doing only tech does not help us; doing only process does not help us; doing only org does not help us. Skipping any of them would hurt us.

Nevertheless I have during the history of agile I have seen competition between the element, sometimes even hostility between practitioners where one side have claimed to be the "true agile".

I think it is unnecessary and harmful.

Furthermore, I think it is unworthy of us, of a community praising "humans and interactions" over all things, a community that thinks "cross functional teams" are the superior model - should we not strive for a "cross functional community"?

In the same way as the hip-hoppers give cred across element borders I would love to see the kick-ass developer praise the agile-minded HR Director for "getting it"; I want the beyond-budgeting-inspired CFO to thank the engaged and engaging scrum master for the fantastic project retrospective; I want to see the impact-mapping business analyst to thank the devops for coming up with insightful real-time metrics about what customers actually do.

OK, I might be guilty of hippiesm here, but I want the three elements of agile to share love.



PS One of the reasons I care so much is that deep in my heart I feel that Agile is different.
PPS There is a video in Swedish from the conference Agila Sverige 2014 where I do a blitz presentation on this subject and some related stuff.