I listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful Revisionist History podcast. In the last podcast of season one, he discussed “the satire paradox.” The punchline of the most recent installment of the podcast is that change is not possible without courage. Flexibility requires courage. Change, when embracing something like Agile, requires the flexibility to give something up. Perhaps we might be asked to move outside of our comfort zone and work differently, or to work with people we haven’t worked with before. Asking testers and developers to work on the same team or to work as pairs or asking backend and UI subteams to work together require flexibility. We can define flexibility to embrace Agile or any other significant modification to work based on four basic attributes:
- Ability to accept changing priorities – Agile projects are based on a backlog that encompasses the prioritized list of work for team(s). This backlog will evolve based on knowledge and feedback. The evolution of the backlog includes changes to the items on the list and the priority of the items on the list. All team members, whether a developer, business analyst or tester, need to accept that what we planned on doing in the next sprint might not be what we originally thought.
- Ability to accept changing roles and workload – Self-directed and self-managed teams make decisions that affect who does what and when. Each team member needs to accept that they might be asked (or need to volunteer) to do whatever is needed for the team to be successful. Adopting concepts such as specializing generalists or T-shaped people are a direct reflection of the need for flexibility.
- Ability to adapt to changing environments – Business and technical architectures change over time. Architectures are a reflection of how someone (a team or an architect) perceives the environment at a specific moment in time. Implementing the adage that developers should “run towards feedback” requires courage and flexibility.
- Ability to persist – Any process change requires doing something different, which is often scary or uncomfortable even if it is only briefly. If we give up immediately at the first sign of unease nothing would ever change, even if the data says that staying the course will be good. For example, the first day at all six universities that I attended was full of stress (I remember once even having the dream that I could not find my classes). I was able to find the courage to persist and push through that unease in order to make the change and find a seat in the back of room in each class.
When I was asked whether two teams were really one team or whether they should find a way to work together, the answers have been premised on the assumption that they had the courage or the flexibility to change. The discussion of courage and flexibility is really less about Agile techniques, but rather a change management issue. A test of whether courage and flexibility are basic issues can be as simple as listening to team members comments. If you hear comments such as “we have always done it that way” or “why can’t we do it the way we used to?”, then leaders and influencers need to assess whether a team or individual has the courage and flexibility to change. If they do not have the flexibility and courage needed, leaders and coaches need to help develop the environment where courage and flexibility can develop before any specific process framework or technique can be successful.
Changing how people work is difficult because most people only choose to change if they see a greater benefit/ pain avoidance than the pain of not making the change. Flexibility is a set of abilities help individuals and teams to make a choice and then establishing a commitment to that choice so that change happens.