Micro Agile

“Every avalanche begins with the movement of a single snowflake…”
– Thomas Frey

One of my favourite Agile principles is…

Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount 
of work not done–is essential.

If you think of some of the more provocative grassroots movements in the Agile space such as #noprojects, #NoEstimates and more recently #noprocesses introduced by a colleague of mine, Dave Rooney, one can see this principle at the heart of those movements. De-scaling frameworks like Craig Larman’s LeSS continues this theme.
The search for simplicity extends to life itself. Just look at the popularity of #NoFilter in Instagram and de-cluttering your living spaces with Marie Kondo.

Programs and movements

I’ve spent over 10 years working with Agile both in line management and consulting roles. When introducing Agile ways of working into an organization, I’ve noted that we can realize the simplicity principle from two starting points or patterns.

  1. Wrestle with a raging bull.
    • Challenge the status quo with pomp, ceremony and fanfare.
    • Make visible or unhide (a term Alexei Zheglov prefers) all of the waste.
    • Plunge your sword into the bewildered bull’s heart.
    • Take down the rest of the crumbling legacy with a final blast of dynamite.
    • Start anew to build from the ground up once the dust settles.
  2. Work like an assiduous ant.
    • Respect and accept where the organization is. Acceptance is the second “A” of Michael Sahota’s CAL1 4A’s of Conscious Leadership model (Awareness, Acceptance, Aspiration, Ask for Help).
    • Build relationships with the people in the organization. According to the Arbinger Institute’s Anatomy of Peace, people leaders spend most of their time dealing with things that are going wrong. It goes on to suggest that more time should be spent helping things go right. That includes relationship building with all staff.
    • Seek to understand why things are the way they are.
    • Recognize the good intentions that exist.
    • Take the time to probe, prompt and model the value of new ways in small ways. Probing, prompting and modelling is a great facilitation technique I learned from my wife.
    • Support the existing people as they gradually de-clutter their mind and simplify their organization.

One pattern is not necessarily better than the other. Looking through the lens of the Cynefin framework, an organization is a complex and at times chaotic system. Having worked in organizations of all shapes and sizes for well over 35 years, I can personally attest to this. As such, the journey towards organizational change and simplicity will never be a straight line from start to finish. It will require doubling back multiple times to both starting points and points in between. It all depends on the organization.

The first pattern is typical of top-down, capital ‘T’ Transformation Programs.
Fully specified, fully extensible C-level approved solutions looking for any and all problems.
An elixir from the Gods.

The second pattern is typical of bottom-up movements.
The result of an accretion of disappointments and failures unified by a common yearning for something better.
The way the Agile Manifesto came to be.
Born out of visceral frustration.
A shared desire to try something different.
Fueled by curiosity that suspends all biases.

I prefer movements over Programs.
Movements live and last in our hearts.

Micro Agile

What do I mean by Micro Agile?

It’s about experiencing Agile at the molecular level. It’s about paring back to the essence of what Agile is without its operational encumbrances. It’s about living and breathing Agile values and principles in bite-size morsels every moment of every day. At work or at home. With colleagues, with family, with friends, with strangers. Every interaction becomes an opportunity in-the-moment to test, learn and discover hitherto unknown ways. A whiff to stimulate the senses and excite the palate. It’s a way to democratize and personalize the Agile mindset for everyone.

It was inspired by several recent learning experiences.

  • During a Collaborative Workshop Facilitation session taught by Gino Marckx, he used “micro-iterations” of 2 minutes in duration to supercharge and focus our workshop results.
  • At a client leadership offsite, our facilitator Michael Sahota drilled into us the importance of the simple act of listening. Practicing a CAL1 teaching known as “Share, then discuss” generated many deep insights in all of us. For one participant, it was the one key takeaway from the day.
  • Thanks to a post by Wayne Hetherington, I was introduced to Liberating Structures. A set of 33 simple, subtle, powerful yet easy-to-learn methods or “microstructures”. Microstructures are defined as the way you organize all your routine interactions. They guide and control how groups work together. They shape your conversations and meetings. They spark inventiveness by minimally structuring the way we interact while liberating content or subject matter.
  • Dave Rooney pointed me to a Doc Norton article on Measuring Joy for Software Developers. It proposed a way to measure happiness of developers with every code check-in. Geek-friendly. Dynamic and in-the-moment. A “micro-survey” alternative to the annual HR administered engagement or opinion surveys?
  • A leader at a client of mine marveled at how much can get accomplished in the space of 15-minute working sessions we coined “Chit-chats”.
  • Challenged by the sequential nature of traditional training approaches to satisfy a diverse set of training needs, I was moved to run an experiment. Opening a Coach’s Corner where Agile Coaches and ScrumMasters can provide hints and tips to agile practitioners on their terms in 15-minute increments.

As I thought some more about what Micro Agile could mean, my musings were amplified by some big ideas on going small.

  • The Butterfly Effect. The flap of a butterfly’s wings on one continent could ultimately cause a tornado several continents away.
  • Nudge Theory. Nudges are small changes in environment that are easy and inexpensive to implement and are used to cognitively prompt a desired outcome.
  • Microservices. Software services that represent fine-grained business capabilities. They can be independently developed, deployed and combined to build bigger applications.

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory suggests that our outward behaviours are driven by our inner values, beliefs, assumptions and biases.
Experiencing Agile at the molecular values and principles level will inform and strengthen our proficiency with agile ways of working. It can also change our way of behaving and of being as humans.

Micro-sizing the Manifesto

There are 22 sentences and 254 words in the Agile Manifesto. Micro Agile thinking gives me an opportunity to appreciate each sentence and each word on its own.

Here are some ways I could micro-size the Manifesto values based on what I’ve tried as an Agile practitioner.

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”

  • Dialogue more, email less
  • See people, not resources. A reference to a key concept from the Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self-Deception.
  • Listen for the message, not the medium. Listening to the system is a key CAL1 teaching.
  • Talk to the customer, not their proxies
  • Break bread together

“Working software over comprehensive documentation”

  • Run experiments with the customer to confirm the definition of “working”.
    • Walk through a paper prototype.
    • Simulate user journeys.
    • A great example of this and more was how Nordstrom Innovation Labs developed a Sunglass iPad app for their in-store sunglasses department.
  • Technology plumbing is working software too
  • Build small “Hello World”-like MVPs (Minimum Viable Product) or RATs (Riskiest Assumption Test)
  • Have the business sponsor an 8-hour hackathon to solve a real business challenge

“Customer collaboration over contract negotiation”

  • Epic story telling by your customers
  • Invite the customer to sit with the team
  • Be customer for a day
  • Micro reviews of progress

“Responding to change over following a plan”

Change isn’t just about requirements. Change can come in many shapes and forms. Too much change can disrupt flow. Too little change can foster complacency. How can we introduce change in doses that will make us stronger without breaking us? That will test how well a team comes together to respond?

  • Run a “What if…” retro (examples: a team member is away, the ScrumMaster doesn’t show up, new skills are needed)
  • Change where you normally sit
  • Change your board
  • Change your commute route
  • Have lunch with someone different
  • Shorten you sprint duration
  • Change of venue for your team ceremonies or events
  • Change your method

A popular learning activity involving the Manifesto principles is “Pocket-sized Principles” where the objective is to summarize each of the 12 principles in 3 words or less.
Taking it one step smaller, here’s what my list of micro-sized principles would look like.

Micro-sized Principles

Micro-sizing The Methods

A great learning activity for Scrum is “Scrum in 60 minutes”. Participants experience micro versions of each of the key Scrum events (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective) within 1-2 micro sprints.

We sometimes forget or take for granted that underlying the mechanics of Scrum and its events are a set of Scrum pillars and values.

Scrum Pillars and Values.png
Scrum Pillars & Values

The Scrum pillars of

  • Transparency
  • Inspection
  • Adaptation

reflect the basis of empirical process control upon which Scrum is based.

The Scrum values of

  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Commitment
  • Respect
  • Openness

transcend the method and are applicable to everyday life. In fact, I would wager that one or more of them would align well with your organization’s core values.

Similarly, Kanban’s practices and principles are supported by a set of 9 values.

Kanban Values
Kanban Values
  1. Understanding
  2. Agreement
  3. Respect
  4. Leadership
  5. Transparency
  6. Balance
  7. Flow
  8. Collaboration
  9. Customer Focus.

Bob Hartman introduced in 2009 the idea that there is a difference between “doing” agile and “being” agile. Building on that…

To do agile means becoming proficient with the practices as a team.
To be agile, mentalize and live the values everyday with everyone. I call that Micro Agile.

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