The big selling point of Agile is the fast return on investment it promises. But what excites me most about Agile is its emphasis on people – agility done well injects humanity back into activities which Waterfall has made bureaucratic and devoid of care. In short, care does not scale. Waterfall’s “inhumanity” comes from the command-and-control paradigm. Teams are not empowered to make the best decisions based on their know-how. Instead this is taken out of the hands of the team and decided by others who are not actually going to get their hands dirty.
Agility is equated with empowerment, but how is empowerment achieved? I often find teams expecting empowerment to come packaged and delivered to their desks: “we want to be empowered, but we are waiting to be told so”. Empowerment involves seizing that power, not waiting for permission. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway, to use a famous book title. Boldness is what leads the way. This means that it takes courage to be an empowered team. You can’t sit waiting for power to be bestowed upon you.
Courage will often take the form of: “I think we should do X. I have a good rationale for it. I don’t know if there is some company rule preventing this. I will just do X and see what happens”. Hopefully, your good rationale will include the fact that you will get fast feedback on the success or otherwise of your decision. Hopefully, you will also be brave enough to be transparent about what you have done, even if it doesn’t go as intended. This is courageous because you are owning the decision, you are owning the fact that you don’t know for sure, you are owning the fact that it might go wrong, you accept that you may have to change what you first thought based on the data you get back and you will have to stand up and be counted. This is an Agile state of mind.
Fear drives us to defer action. We want someone else to approve or sign off. We want to investigate more to gather more information in the false hope of reaching certainty. We plan and theorise. We spend a lot of time discussing all the possible things that could go wrong. We debate endlessly about which way to go, imagining that by discussing for longer we will somehow reach a consensus. The one thing we are terrified of is making a mistake. Shock horror – we will never learn from those, right? This is a Waterfall state of mind.
Courage requires a leap of faith – decisions are necessarily made without knowing all the facts, without knowing (or pretending to know) everything up front, and instead trusting your own abilities to believe that you will be able to navigate whatever obstacles present themselves en route. It is the commitment to a decision which is the key, more than the decision itself.
Has our culture become too risk-averse to think about courage and commitment?
Here is the litmus test to see if you can conquer your fear: all of you … today … now … say “yes”: make a decision, own it, follow it through and face the consequences!
Haran Rasalingam is the Lean Agile Coach at Trainline.
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