Being Agile is Like Driving a Car

One of my most memorable accomplishments as a teenager was getting my driver’s license. It took me a couple of tries. When I finally passed, I felt overjoyed. I let out a sigh of relief as the dark clouds of doubt and failure parted. For me, driving a car was one of those rites of passage growing up. It signalled my transition from child to adult. From public to private transit. I could drive anywhere I wanted – on my own! I was free.

I learned to drive using the Smith System developed by Harold Smith in 1952. I still remember watching those grainy black and white instructional video tapes featuring old American cars with large whitewall tires along with coiffed and formally attired narrators. The Smith System was based on 5 seeing rules for safe, no-accident driving:

  1. Aim high in steering
  2. Get the big picture
  3. Keep your eyes moving
  4. Leave yourself an out
  5. Make sure they see you

These 5 seeing rules have stuck with me ever since. Much to the chagrin of my children who recall being constantly badgered and reminded of the rules when they were learning to drive. I was only trying to help.

Thinking about the Smith seeing rules recently, I started to imagine how they could apply to learning to be agile.

Aim High In Steering

The first principle of the Smith System is to aim high while steering. Our eyes are meant to work for us at walking speed and not the high rates of speed of motor vehicles. In order to improve eye-lead time, you should look ahead to where you’ll be about 15 seconds into the future.

When driving, wherever you look is where the car will go. The intent of this rule was to encourage drivers to look as far ahead as possible to detect any traffic issues and to steer your car around any hazards. If you look way ahead down the centre of your driving lane, you’ll notice that your hands will automatically steer the car down the centre of the lane keeping your car in the lane. Similarly, if you get distracted by looking at something in the next lane or on the sidewalk, guess where you’ll tend to steer? It was an amazing eye-hand-car coordination effect. The other corollary to this rule was the 2 second rule for maintaining a safe distance between your car and the car in front of you. Picking a landmark next to the road like a hydro or utility pole, count the duration of time between the car in front passing it and the time you pass it. If that duration is less than 2 seconds, you’re following too closely.

When it comes to Agile ways, this rule reminds me of the following considerations to ponder when we’re starting an Agile journey:

  • Where are we headed with this Agile transformation ?
  • What’s our North Star for change?
  • What does success look like?
  • What could slow us down?
  • How could we fail?

Get The Big Picture

While you are looking 15 seconds ahead, you should also be scanning the sides and rear of your vehicle in order to get the full picture. You should check at least one of your mirrors every 5-8 seconds. By consistently updating your information, you will be alert to the most relevant information and make well-informed decisions.

Getting a 360 degree view of my surroundings using my car’s mirrors while the car is travelling 100 feet per second keeps me aware of my rapidly changing environment. My car is only one part of the landscape. Interacting with other moving parts whether it be cars, pedestrians, wildlife or hazards. A great example of this is what happens when you’re driving along and you notice up ahead the lane beside you is going to end and merge with your lane. In theory, the safest thing to do would be for the cars in both lanes to work with each other and take turns getting through the merge point. First a car from one lane then a car from the other lane and so on. When done cooperatively, it’ll resemble a zipper. Both lanes of cars will flow efficiently without either lane unnecessarily bottlenecking. In practice, our competitive lizard brains take over, the zipper breaks down and bottlenecks develop. When this happens, it’s every person for themselves as it becomes a death race to block the other car from merging so that our car can stay ahead. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been guilty of this on more than one occasion!

A number of things come to mind when looking at this rule through an Agile lens.

  • Systems Thinking. Focusing on the whole and all its interactions rather then the constituent parts in isolation. A lot can happen in between getting from point A to point B. Rarely will it be a straight “as the crow flies” path.
  • WIIFM, WIIFY, WIIFT. What’s in it for me, for you, and for them. Starting with “why” in 360 feedback style. Helping everyone understand what being agile means to each one of us. Working together to form a smooth zipper. Related concepts include Design Thinking and Story Mapping.
  • Scaling. Keeping the big picture in mind can guide us in how we spread new patterns, benefits, and learnings throughout an organization, or not. Adjusting as we go for changes in the system.

Keep Your Eyes Moving

Consistent eye movement prevents your body from entering a trance state and allows you to remain alert by stimulating brain activity. When you stare at any object for too long, you reduce your peripheral vision and increase your chances of missing something on the road.
You should be moving your eyes every 2 seconds and scanning all intersections before driving through them.

This is one of my go-to rules especially if I’m on a long drive through some boring flat hinterland. It’s so easy to fall into a trance especially at nights, and focus solely on the tail lights of the cars ahead. I’ve even applied this rule when playing sports like hockey where it’s known by the aliases, “Keep your head on a swivel” or “Read the play” to be aware of what’s happening on the ice rink or field of play.

Being agile has so many ways to capitalize on this rule. Here are a few thought starters.

  • Feedback Loops and pdCa. Starting with the agile spirit of continuous improvement, I’ve intentionally capitalized the “C” in Deming’s pdCa (plan, do, Check, act) cycle to emphasize how keeping your eyes moving is a metaphor for the “Check” in PDCA.
  • Zombie Agile. Are your teams simply going through the motions of Scrum? Preferring to watch the Scrum Master hold the pen and talk on their behalf while they simply stare blankly? Have your agile ceremonies, events or cadences become stale? How quickly has your team tired of the same old, same old “What Went Well, What Didn’t Go Well, What Will We Do Differently” retrospectives? Maybe it’s time to mix up the standard retrospective and try something off the wall.
  • Agility Metrics. What are we measuring and what data is being captured to help us know whether we’re getting closer or further away from our objectives like product goals? Are we able to distinguish “outcomes” from “outputs”? Do we even know the difference between vanity metrics, fitness criteria, general health indicators, improvement drivers and OKRs?

Leave Yourself An Out

You should always leave yourself an out while driving. This means you should be surrounding your vehicle with space as much as possible. Do not follow other vehicles too closely and do your best to leave at least the front and one side open. You do not want other drivers to box you in because it reduces the chance of being able to avoid a hazard.

I remember my driving instructor using an analogy of maintaining an air cushion all around the car. Doing this reduced the risks of following too closely, forced me to change lanes if the driver behind me was tailgating and being mindful of my blind spots on both sides. It also helped to proactively do some worst-case thinking – what would happen if I needed to swerve to the left or the right? Do I at least have one side open?

What could this rule look like for Agile ways?

  • Adapt. The first thing that comes to mind is AMV#4: “Adapting to change over following a plan”. That’s the hallmark of agility. The only thing that’s constant is change so always be adapting.
  • Failure is an option. When trying something new, we’ve all heard the sayings, “Fail fast”, “Fail forward”, “Success teaches us nothing, failure teaches us everything”. So, it’s ok to fail. Small failures with limited blast radius provide an even better chance of exiting safely to try again another day.
  • Pull vs. Push. Engagement in agile environments is deeper, more authentic and more rewarding when people pull themselves into something of their own free will, rather than being pushed or forced into it. This is what begets psychological safety and getting to do something rather than having to do something. Of course, this means engagement is an invitation. One that people can choose to accept and enter or decline and exit. People have an out. Agility is not for everyone.

Make Sure They See You

The final principle of the Smith System is to make sure other drivers see you. You should never assume another driver can see you or that they are concerned with driving safely. By getting eye contact from those who are seemingly unaware, you can avoid potential accidents. Use your blinker and your horn, if necessary, to alert others of your next move.

As a driver, if you’ve ever arrived at an intersection with four-way stop signs at exactly the same time as one or more other drivers, you would’ve triggered this rule. If there are only 2 cars, then if the car arriving at the same time as you is to your right, they have right-of-way, otherwise you do. But, what if there are more than 2 cars? This is where a combination of eye contact, hand gestures, flashing lights and beeping horns can really help communicate intent. Another example is to avoid driving in another car’s blind spot. This rule works well in sports as well. When you’re passing a puck or throwing a ball to a teammate, it’s far more likely they will successfully receive your pass or your throw if you see the whites of the other person’s eyes before you release the puck or ball.

How could this translate in an Agile environment? A number of examples come to mind.

  • Demo, demo, demo. Agile teams visibly celebrate their accomplishments by sharing and showcasing not only for their own team but across the organization. And it’s not just about demo’ing working software. Why not demo your impediments, failures and learnings? Make sure your stakeholders regularly see you.
  • Face-to-face conversation. It’s still the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within teams. Physical face-to-face with work mates has been all but non-existent during the pandemic. Virtual face-to-face is still better than email, chat or text messages. Try turning on those cameras.
  • Equal voice. Agile environments encourage, invite and value active participation. Being heard is sometimes even more important than being seen. Every opinion counts and is shared openly with each other.
  • Outcomes over outputs. Business people and IT people don’t necessarily see results and deliverables in the same way. All that technical plumbing the IT team has roughed in may have taken a lot of time and effort to output. However, it is meaningless to business people unless they see that plumbing converted into business outcomes and value they recognize. Like being able to take a shower.
  • Alignment. Making sure you see, hear and understand each other’s perspectives is the first step in getting different factions on common ground and onto the same page.

When used correctly, the Smith System can reduce preventable accidents by 60 percent. By employing these tips, you can help drive safer every day.

And, by applying these tips to agile environments, you can be agile more effectively every day.


The Smith System quotes were excerpted from “How to Master the 5 Principles of Smith System Driving”

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