Agile Practitioners Aren’t Supposed to Use Flamethrowers – Are They?

Have you ever been in a flamethrower war? I sincerely hope you have never been in one like the picture, but if you have been there serving for the US armed forces, then thank you for what you did for our country! Most of us have not been in a literal flamethrower war, but some of us have been in our share of them in the virtual world. I may be showing my age, but we used to have a phrase for arguments on message boards: flame wars or flaming. They were all the rage when a social network was really a Usenet newsgroup. Now we’ve grown up to using fancy mailing lists from Google and Yahoo and we still have the same core issues around disagreements. People will make statements in a message that they would never make in a face-to-face environment.

There were arguments about agile even before the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was created in 2001 by 17 brave individuals (some of whom I’m honored to be able to call friends). Lately, I’ve come to realize that the world of arguing around agile hasn’t changed in the past 10+ years at all. The players have changed, but not the fact that we can’t all get along. In the past year I’ve seen “discuss-ments” (give me credit if you use my made up word!) around all of the following issues:

  • Is a backlog prioritized, ordered, or should we use some other word?
  • Kanban is much better than Scrum, isn’t it?
  • Scrum is much better than Kanban, isn’t it?
  • Why don’t more people teach XP practices?
  • Certified ScrumMaster should be abolished because it is evil.
  • Certified ScrumMaster should be enhanced to make it something useful.
  • There should or shouldn’t be a test or assessment or essay responses to something asking questions or scenarios or something for people to become certified or certifiable or…
  • Certain courses should or should not be allowed to be advertised in certain mailing lists.

I don’t mind people speaking their mind. I do it quite often myself, but I try very hard to do it in a respectful fashion. Today it seems people just shout as loud as they can, as often as they can, and hope people with a differing opinion will just acquiesce. I’m pretty sure that in the history of mankind that has never actually occurred, but it doesn’t stop people from trying.

Too many people seem to believe life is a zero-sum game. If you win, then they must lose. I don’t believe it works that way. It could work that way if greed was everything to everybody, but it isn’t. When you give up trying to win it all, you often end up winning in unbelievably wonderful ways. It is Christmas time and during this time of year you can always find heart-warming stories of incredible charity (like this one and this one). If life were a zero-sum game, would things like this ever occur?

There is always a win-win out there to be had. Make it a personal goal to go find the win-win rather than escalating to using a flamethrower to make a point. Treat people with respect and dignity and you will be pleasantly surprised at how things can change. The Golden Rule “treat people as you would like to be treated” is still good advice no matter how old it is! When was the last time you actually thought about the Golden Rule in a way that mattered?

Of course, I’m saying this in an environment where people in the US Congress are appearing to treat each other with respect and dignity by calling each other “esteemed colleague” or “friend from the other side of the aisle,” but it is all for show and not real. Do you really think the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader actually like each other? It’s pretty obvious the people of the US don’t like them much!  One of the Scrum Values is to be transparent and open. Another is respect. Doing both at the same time works better!

I don’t expect the agile world to stop their discuss-ments overnight – or ever. What I sincerely hope is a renewed effort at respecting the differences we have and understanding we can all be right (and all wrong) at the same time. None of us is perfect, nor are our solutions or ideas. The best of the best uphold agile principles around continuous improvement. Ask yourself if it is possible for you to be at least partially wrong? If so, then there is room for improvement. The day you say you are completely right is the day you are probably no longer being agile because you can always improve!

How does this apply to teams? Let’s make it a bit more real now. On agile teams, don’t blame people or other parts of the organization for the issues you have. Those things happen based on the process and expectations in place. Change the core items! Don’t just put a band-aid on it by glossing over the issue. Don’t try to say it won’t happen that way again (and this is how many times you’ve tried the same thing and received the same result???). Make a change and adjust based on how the change worked or didn’t work. Plan, Do, Check, Act or Transparency, Inspection, Adaptation or something else – it doesn’t matter which, they all say to TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

For me, the something different, is going to start right now. I’m going to add a module to my workshops around dealing with conflict. I’ve seen enough of it being detrimental to enough agile teams, and at this point enough is enough (did I use enough enoughs in that sentence?). Don’t want to come to a workshop? No problem, start reading about the subject. Collaboration Explained by Jean Tabaka, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson and others, Managing Transitions by William Bridges and many other books are great starting points for how to have needed conversations and make them effective.

For me it is the time of the year to consider gifts and changes. If it is for you as well, then consider this blog entry my gift to you as it is also a challenge to think about change!

Until next time I’ll be Making Agile a Reality® for organizations that are having too many discuss-ments!

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  1. Amen, Bob! It’s one thing to disagree in person, where you have the full context of body language and can quickly hash things out and arrive at a point (whether it’s agreement, compromise, or agreement to disagree). The flame wars, immortalized forever on the internet…that’s a point that’s been holding me back from engaging in the online Agile discussions. We can be a contentious group! I have a quote from one of my favorite boss’s that I think of often when I’m stuck on my own opinion, “There are 10 ways to do thing, 5 are right, pick one.” I think the Agile world proves that. It is rarely one answer or another, but just a decision of which way to go. And then PDCA. Again and again.

  2. Bob – Great post. One thing I have come to realize is, when the focus on the “we” how will “we” accomplish this goal or what can I do to help us (the team) achieve the goal, we all win, the project wins and the product owner or client wins. As we discussed in our class this week, “we over me”. Keep that focus and the odds of success improve greatly. We the focus is on the team, there is respect for one an other and there is inclusiveness; with inclusiveness comes a sense of ownership in the project. Thank you for sharing.