Understanding is a crucial habit for Agile and DevOps!

The key to success
Working with different companies and teams on topics around Agile and DevOps always brings up interesting insights of daily practice. In my talk “A fairy tale about habits: or what we can learn from Cinderella and her peers” I pointed out some important habits for being really agile and doing DevOps. Let's set the stage for agile teamwork and collaboration to be able to deliver value to the customer and create a meaningful and satisfying work environment for the people in the organization. To be good at that, it is quite necessary to understand the core of Agile – for everyone!

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Agile and DevOps are more than just methods!

When­ev­er com­pa­nies, teams or indi­vid­u­als pre­tend to do agile, it is worth tak­ing a clos­er look what it real­ly means. There are at least four main lev­els of agile. The first is using Agile Meth­ods like Scrum or Kan­ban or oth­ers just to man­age the work or maybe because of the “every­one is doing it” reason.

The sec­ond lev­el is that teams start agile prac­tices like doing ret­ro­spec­tives fre­quent­ly or hav­ing standups or reviews.

On the third lev­el teams try to apply the 12 Prin­ci­ples of the agile Man­i­festo to their dai­ly work. The idea of Inspect & Adapt becomes part of the work. This means, that peo­ple have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what Agile real­ly means. They apply it to their work wher­ev­er it is pos­si­ble. This is where is Agile Mind­set starts to grow.

Agile Pyramid
Pic­ture: Agile Pyra­mid by Sabine Wojcieszak

Business Agility – the next level for the company

The fourth lev­el is Busi­ness Agili­ty. It means that the whole orga­ni­za­tion is act­ing, think­ing and behav­ing agile in a way that it can respond to change all over the com­pa­ny when­ev­er it is nec­es­sary and valu­able. The core val­ues of the Agile Man­i­festo are an impor­tant part of the company’s cul­ture and give guid­ance and ori­en­ta­tion. So Agile is not only an idea of the soft­ware devel­op­ment depart­ment any­more. It can deliv­er val­ue through all busi­ness process­es if applied prop­er­ly. In this Busi­ness Agili­ty envi­ron­ment, a DevOps mind­set can flour­ish and unfold its whole ben­e­fits. Learn­ing and improve­ment are no longer things you do, when “you have time for it”. There are com­pan­ions through­out the dai­ly work – of every­one. Indi­vid­u­als, teams and the com­pa­ny will dis­cov­er and under­stand that Agili­ty and DevOps are close­ly con­nect­ed to many oth­er the­o­ries like Sys­tems Think­ing, The­o­ry of Con­straints, the Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem, Cynefin, Crit­i­cal Think­ing and many more. In this stage with every new learn­ing nugget peo­ple feel that there is even more to learn which can help them to improve. And they wel­come this and use it as a chance.

The Agile Theatre

You can do the Agile Meth­ods with­out hav­ing an Agile Mind­set or Busi­ness Agili­ty. But you will not gain the full ben­e­fits of Agile because there will always be a lack of under­stand­ing of what the core and the heart of Agile are. The con­text is miss­ing. It is the same with DevOps. It is symp­to­matic that com­pa­nies buy so called Agile or DevOps tools and believe that is all they need to do. Hav­ing a deliv­ery pipeline which is built by anoth­er silo with­out talk­ing with those peo­ple who will lat­er use it, is an excel­lent hint, that they have no clue, what the real idea of DevOps is.

If peo­ple are doing agile just like play­ing a role with­out hav­ing under­stood it, it is called the Agile The­atre. In this case, “Agile” is some­how writ­ten down — maybe in the company’s guide­lines or as a mar­ket­ing head­line – but none is dis­cussing the real mean­ing for the work to be done. Maybe peo­ple are adding their own indi­vid­ual inter­pre­ta­tion of what it means, but in this sce­nario, they will not have a shared understanding.

Agile Zombies
Pic­ture “Zom­bies” Pho­to by Chris Hall on Unsplash

Beware of the Agile Zombies!

But worse are the Agile Zom­bies, those who are just doing agile stuff with­out think­ing. They are doing it just because some­one told them – even with­out inter­pre­ta­tion. It is like the “command”-part of “com­mand + con­trol”. But that does not work and is even worse than the tra­di­tion­al “com­mand + con­trol”. If some­one relies on being told what to do, how can we expect that this per­son will take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the own work with­out being controlled?

How to overcome the danger zone

So, it is an urgent task to address these behav­iours with­in a team as soon as we get aware of it. This leads me back to the Ret­ro­spec­tive Prime Direc­tive by Nor­man Kerth:

“Regard­less of what we dis­cov­er, we under­stand and tru­ly believe that every­one did the best job they could, giv­en what they knew at the time, their skills and abil­i­ties, the resources avail­able, and the sit­u­a­tion at hand.”

The inter­est­ing ques­tion is, why are peo­ple play­ing the Agile The­atre or act like Agile Zom­bies. Maybe it is because they have no idea how to apply agile ideas into their indi­vid­ual work, they don’t see the advan­tage or impor­tance or — just human – they sim­ply for­got it. Please always have in mind: it is not a ques­tion about blame some­one. It is about under­stand­ing and then try­ing to find a bet­ter way!

But no mat­ter why — in Agile as well as in DevOps — doing things with­out think­ing just because some­one told you to do, is a bad and dan­ger­ous habit. It keeps us away from ques­tion­ing our­selves and from con­tin­u­ous improvement!

“Agile does­n’t come with a brain! Please use yours!”,

is a quote by “derkomischeagilist.de”. And it hits direct­ly into the bull’s eye.

The Agile Manifesto as the Key Resource!

To over­come the stage of Agile The­atre or the dan­ger zone of Agile Zom­bies the Agile Man­i­festo is still not only a good start­ing point but also a light­house for your orientation. 

First aid for teams and companies:

  • Read, under­stand and dis­cuss the Agile Man­i­festo with its val­ues and its principles!
  • Take it as an exer­cise in your retros:
    • Pick out a Val­ue and maybe two of the prin­ci­ples in each retro and chal­lenge them!
    • Dis­cuss what these things mean for your work and if they are a good approach for you!
    • Iden­ti­fy where you as a team and as an indi­vid­ual already meet the Agile Man­i­festo and where not!
    • Also be hon­est, if there are parts in the Man­i­festo, which are not work­ing for you.
    • But do not just skip them – bet­ter find a for­mu­la which makes sense for your work!

There is no one-size-fits-all approach – espe­cial­ly not in Agile and DevOps. The goal is to cre­ate a shared under­stand­ing of what it means to your team! Only then you can work in the same direc­tion towards your team goals.

You can extend this idea with all oth­er inter­est­ing and impor­tant the­o­ries (like men­tioned before) and try to find out, how they can help, how good you are and how you want to improve.

Shared Understanding
Pic­ture “Shared Understanding”

Do this reg­u­lar­ly and build two good habits out of it:

  1. Think! Before you do, while you are doing and after hav­ing done!
  2. Always scru­ti­nize what you are doing and how you are doing it just to improve continuously!

The real ben­e­fit of doing this exer­cise in your team is, that it will stick in the minds, which makes it eas­i­er to fol­low these ideas!

Easy when work is going smoothly

As prin­ci­ples and val­ues are some­how light­weight and always need ori­en­ta­tion (but heavy­weight in point of impact), they can eas­i­ly be over­seen espe­cial­ly when the “play gets tough”. This means, it is usu­al­ly eas­i­ly to fol­low the agile prin­ci­ples when work is going smooth­ly. But as soon as prob­lems arise, it real­ly gets hard to fol­low. The weird thing is, that Agile and DevOps deliv­er the best val­ue for the “though times”. The more it is impor­tant to always remem­ber those ideas.

To make the prin­ci­ples eas­i­ly avail­able, use your own sto­ries you dis­cov­er in your dai­ly work. They will con­nect the abstract prin­ci­ples and val­ues of the Man­i­festo and link it to your work envi­ron­ment. Dis­cuss and update it reg­u­lar­ly! It will not only bring ben­e­fit to the dai­ly work, it will also help onboard­ing new team members.

Visu­al­ize them in a team play­book or draw sketch notes and put it some­where on the wall where every­one can see it! There is no wall because you are a dis­trib­uted team? Why not using such a sketch note as a screen saver for the team? No mat­ter how your indi­vid­ual work envi­ron­ment is, you will def­i­nite­ly find a solu­tion for your team’s situation!

Make the sto­ries stick by cre­at­ing an inter­est­ing sto­ry­line with cool char­ac­ters, point­ing out the most impor­tant facts and the learnings.

Don’t for­get – tell sto­ries, this is what they are for. To say it more busi­ness-like: talk about your own expe­ri­ences, learn­ings and – yes – failures!

Good habit num­ber 3 is:

3. Tell inter­est­ing sto­ries about your expe­ri­ences to share a com­mon under­stand­ing and fos­ter learning!

Although Agile and many meth­ods on which DevOps is built on are already some decades old, they are still impor­tant to our mod­ern times! Use them for your success.

Signature Sabine Wojcieszak

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