Monday, November 26, 2012

Agile Ethics

Agile started as a discussion of lightweight software development methods. At least, this is why in February 2001, 17 software developers met at the Snowbird, Utah resort. When I talk to people about what attracts them to Agile, I frequently hear that simplicity of approach resonates with them. Remove unnecessary complexities and waste, and do whatever is meaningful and productive, in a way that works now and here. That is beautiful.

This is not what attracted me to Agile as a concept though. I was fascinated by a simple fact that those people were talking about efficient ways of writing code, and yet they started with values. This did resonate with me. Developing machine code and thinking values – as counter intuitive as it may seem and as organic as it can possibly be.

I have been thinking about the value of having values recently. Specifically,  starting last week. I am trying to comprehend the concept of “prioritizing values”. How can you prioritize values? It’s either a value and then it is a priority, or it’s not, and then, there is no need to prioritize anything. Have you heard of work/life balance?  “I have my values but I am doing whatever is best for my family.” Does it mean I can lie or I can betray someone’s trust if I think this is best for my family? This puzzles me and yet, as a Coach, I hear it sometimes.

Throughout years, I’ve learned to understand the concept of “work/life” balance and yet I do not get it. When I am talking to my colleague or helping my son do his homework, am I a different person? Do I divide “me-at work” and “me-at home”? Do I have different values depending on where I am and what I do? Do I feel happy in a different way when my code finally compiled, or when an employee got a chance he has been waiting for, or when my son does subtraction without counting physical objects? Am I working when I write my Agile blog at 2 am in the morning or am I actually relaxing because I enjoy doing it? I think that the concept of “work/life” is made up by unhappy people who think that when work ends, life starts. Luckily, not so for many of us.

Going back to ethics. When I was a child, ethics for me was no different than etiquette. I associated ethics with eating with the right fork and it seemed to me just another unnecessary constraint humans establish to add unnecessary complexity to their lives. As a child, I implemented a lightweight process of eating everything with a spoon. Worked for me.

When I learned that ethics is a set of moral principles, the concept seemed even duller. Until a week ago when I finally understood why Agile is more than a framework for me. What resonates with me that these 17 people in Utah came up with the principles based on their beliefs. They did not think in terms of “work/life balance” or “I hate to do this to my team but I have to do whatever is best for my family”, they thought about what matters most and based their principles on the values they believe in. This is what ethics is for me. It’s our beliefs in what is right and what is wrong. And right for my team and right for my family are not in conflict. Just because there is one right, and it is the choice that I make.

 I believe that it is not material that the product of this Utah gathering was the Agile framework of software development. If this group of people were in aviation, they would envision an amazing plane which will fly faster than any other comparable plane. If it were an economics theory, it would explain many processes in the modern world that we are still trying to comprehend.

No matter what the area of knowledge is – right values create meaningful things, and this is what Agile is for me. Meaningful approach based on firm beliefs in right or wrong that resonate with me. And I find it hard to believe in “what is best for my family” concept because our values do not change when we come home from work. Otherwise Utah gathering would never happen.

Workplace 2020

The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today 

I do not believe in coincidences. Actually, I do. I just think that most coincidences only seem to be such. Each time I am amazed by a coincidence and start thinking about it, I manage to figure out the reason for it. Here’s a recent example. I read a book about 2020 Workplace and listened to a presentation by Agile coaches at Spotify at NYC Scrum.  There were multiple great points in each, but two parallel thoughts fascinated me.

The book described the onboarding process in a 2020 company. A new employee joins the company. Actually, it is not exactly a new employee because she has been coached by the company and introduced to its business since middle school. But today, during the first day of her employment, she is having virtual meetings with three potential managers who share their vision and suggest work responsibilities to her, hoping that she will select each of them as a manager. And she is responsibly taking the challenge of finding the one whose vision and passion to the work resonates with her. And once she chooses this manager, she will rotate throughout the company during the first year of her employment growing to know the business and people until the chooses where she'd like to work.

The presentation from Spotify coaches was staged as an onboarding process where all participants had to imagine that it’s our first day with the company, and the coaches are telling us a compelling story of company’s values, structure, opportunities, and innovative ways to engage employees. They were not talking about Agile principles, rules, ceremonies. They were talking about the spirit, the “guilds” that promote employee collaboration based on their interests, about support within domain-based "chapters", the unity of "tribes", the ease of choosing and moving to a team, and freedom in selecting practices that work for a team.

I was talking to product owner today about killing team’s motivation with constantly changing priorities, about demotivating them by not releasing their work into production and by not sharing any actual impact of their work with them. And the product owner told me he has nothing to do with it because he has no choice. He depends on his manager, and his manager depends on his bonus. Plain Maslow's hierarchy of needs. No choice here.

All of a sudden it struck me what I liked in the book and the presentation above and what I do not understand in this product owner’s reasoning. 

In the book and in the presentation, the freedom of choice is as organic as ability to breathe. This is what makes us people, this is what motivates us and makes our lives meaningful. World literature is based on the dilemma whether we have choice over our destiny, or our lives are pre-determined by an outside power or environment we're in, whichever it may be. 

In order for our professional life to be meaningful, we want to be able to make our choices, good or bad – but those will be the choices we made. Not the product owner, not the circumstances, not even ROI – we want to work on things that are meaningful, on things that matter to us, and do so with the people we trust who motivate and inspire us. And we want to be able to make a choice.

This is what my responsibility as an Agile coach is: to ensure that teams have choice in making their professional life meaningful and their work emotionally rewarding. I just wish I could find better words in sharing my vision with the product owner. I am not giving up though. Not until his team is giving him another chance. I’ll buy him “The 2020 Workplace” for Christmas. Or Daniel Pink’s “Drive”. Or share Henrik Kniberg’s 15-minute speech about the essence of Agile. I am not giving up on him – he deserves having a choice, too.