25 Nov An agile being
In my previous post, I asked whether ‘as change leaders, is each of us focusing on the outcome and working back from there to determine the best approach?’ and ‘do we each know how we uniquely contribute to the shared outcome?’ Do we know what is the ‘right stuff’ to do and do we have the ‘right stuff’ to do it?
These questions are the essence of being agile. To focus on the outcome and adjust the plan to achieve the outcome, rather than adjusting the outcome (or the scope or the timetable or the quality) to meet the plan. To focus on generating value through timeboxed activities and collaborative engagement with users, rather than sticking to plan and drawing upon contingency funds when the assumptions of the initial plan are proven partial or false. To adopt a praxis approach of act-learn-act where the people are in charge rather than the plan being in charge. To know what is the ‘right stuff’ to create value for the customer and whether the team has the ‘right stuff’ to deliver it.
Traditional projects make decisions based on what is known at the time. So too agile projects make decisions based on what is known at the time. The difference is at what time the decisions are made, with traditional projects front-end loading the decisions (about business cases, budgets, timetables, and assumptions etc.) and agile projects making decisions just in time (about what’s next, what’s working, when is enough enough?). The difference is also the level of certainty, of what is known and unknown, at that time.
For example, when the Rubic’s Cube was first introduced, I for one found it a complex problem to solve. I did not know how to do it. Twisting and turning and trial and error failed to get all of the colours on all of the side properly aligned. With 42 quintillion possibilities, it even took Erno Rubik (its inventor) one month to learn how to solve it. Then people discovered the algorithm and now we have the ‘six step guide which will take you through everything you need to know when it comes to solving the Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes!’ The Rubic’s Cube has been reduced to a repeatable process with a predictable outcome. Its a known problem with a known solution.
Where things have been done before or there is repeatable solution, then complex problems become merely complicated and better suited to traditional project planning. It is the element of uncertainty that makes them complex and requires a more agile mindset. It is the element of uncertainty that also makes them more or less risky, with the ISO 31000 Risk Management standard defining risk as ‘the effect of uncertainty on objectives’. Our job as change leaders is therefore twofold – to focus on the objectives and empower others to know how they contribute to these objectives, as well as to focus on reducing uncertainty and risk to achieving these objectives.
We can try to assume uncertainty away and adjust for risk with contingency allowances of time and money, or we can name what is known now and what is not yet knowable, then plan timeboxed activities to discover this knowledge. Some uncertainty will diminish over time as we make it real and get feedback. Some uncertainty will remain. After all, to decide is to consider and put to death options in the face of uncertainty. This is the ‘right stuff’ that the original US astronauts on the Mercury space project demonstrated. As Tom Wolfe wrote in the foreword to his book The Right Stuff , he was curious ” about what “makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle… and wait for someone to light the fuse”. Their ‘right stuff’, as is ours, is to focus on the outcome, consider options, reduce uncertainty where and when we can, then have the courage to light the fuse! This is being an agile being.