An Agile Lesson from the Movie “City Slickers”

As an Agile trainer and coach, I have worked with hundreds of companies over the past 10 years. After reflecting back on my interactions with all these companies, I have found there is a strong correlation between a single decision companies make and how much dysfunction there is in the company.

Have I discovered a silver bullet that fixes all companies? No, not at all. However, I have found something I believe is quite significant. Let Curly (Jack Palance) and Mitch (Billy Crystal) take it from here to give you a clue.

Ok, for those of you that didn’t actually watch the clip, here is a transcript:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

Mitch: No, what?

Curly: [holds up index finger] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean s**t!

Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?

Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out.

Do you see the answer? It’s right there in that single 32-second movie scene. It’s the one thing! Does your team or your division or your whole company for that matter, really know what their one thing is?

In my experience, there is a strong correlation between companies focusing on too many things and how dysfunctional they end up being. This is not to say they aren’t successful, many are, but internally they struggle to achieve things. Better focus would go a long way toward helping them achieve even more success.

Famed management guru, Peter Drucker recognized this as well. He wrote, “Concentration is the key to economic results. No other principle of effectiveness is violated as constantly today as the basic principle of concentration.” In other words, if we don’t concentrate on one thing we are doing it wrong! I wrote a blog entry on this last year which you can find at

What can you do about it? You may not be able to change your company (although perhaps with help from Agile For All you can!). So how can you make a difference? My advice is to start with things you can control or influence.

Let’s start with what you can directly control – YOU!

How can you change things to be more focused during your normal workday (as a note, this also works in your life outside of work)? Start by asking yourself what one, most important thing, needs to be accomplished today. Then concentrate on getting that thing done. If you accomplish 27 other things, but the most important thing doesn’t get done, was your day really successful?

Many of us just can’t stop the infinite loop of continually being pulled in many different directions, but there are some coping mechanisms. For example, can you structure your day so you have longer chunks of time to work on one thing at a time? I have seen people be very successful at managing the chaos and stress by breaking their day into three to five chunks of time and they have the discipline to work on only one thing during most of those chunks of time.

It is amazing how much you can get accomplished toward an important goal if you devote just two hours of uninterrupted time toward it (and uninterrupted means turning off all the other distractions like email, cell phone, instant messenger, Slack, etc.).

Perhaps one of the chunks of your time could even be “chaos time” when you try to put out as many fires as you can (and you leave all the distractions on!). I know of one person that uses that time as a game and tries to set a new record each week for how many small things they can fix using just that window of time. I’m not sure that would work for me, but they really enjoy doing it, so it works for them.

Now let’s turn to areas where you can influence but not control. Your team at work is a good example of this. Your team is probably trying to accomplish many missions at once and is not doing a great job with any of them. You may be doing well, but are you doing great?

One exercise I like to do with teams is having them brainstorm onto post-it notes all the things they are trying to accomplish. There are often notes saying things like “higher velocity”, “higher quality”, “shipping on time”, and a host of others. When you look at the list, do you see any that are in direct conflict with each other? What one goal would make sense rather than having all of these other goals? What one thing might encompass enough to make the majority of issues and conflicts go away?

Sometimes teams are struggling so much they can’t see a way out. At times like that, I often ask if a goal of “successfully completing sprints with a tested and validated product increment that people love at the Sprint Review” would help. Perhaps that is your one thing you can help the team focus on.

Imagine how many issues would go away if every sprint, the team could actually deliver amazing, fully tested functionality and completed everything in the sprint they intended to complete. Wouldn’t that change things quite a bit?

What might be needed to make that happen? Perhaps it means committing to less work in order to finish it and finish it well. And when you think about it, wouldn’t doing that also help save a lot of time which would get spent later fixing bugs, so isn’t going “slower” actually a win? Perhaps it means figuring out how to do testing better within sprints, and wouldn’t that lead to higher quality per sprint which would lead to a higher quality product? Perhaps it means learning about the Agile engineering practices from eXtreme Programming (XP) like pair programming, test-driven development, etc. (if you want to learn more about these practices you can sign up for Agile For All’s “Developer Essentials” newsletter at I’m sure there are many more ideas, but you have to start somewhere!

I have found that instead of asking “How will I get all of this done?” it is far better to ask, “Which of these things should I get done first because it is the one thing that matters right now?” I think Curly was right, it really is about just one thing. What is the correct one thing for you?That’s the question.

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