Sunday, 23 November 2008

Agile welcomes friendly aliens

It is a common complaint amongst agilists that teams label themselves as Agile simply because they do all the practices such as TDD etc. yet they are not what they would call agile. They argue that the practices alone aren't enough, that there is something else, something unquantifiable which agile is all about: the so called 'spirit' of agile, the 'people factor', or to quote "[it] may look the same as an agile methodology, but it won’t feel the same”. What they are trying to describe is a lack of alienation.

Anyone who did philosophy or sociology - or was simply a sixth form socialist revolutionary - would probably have looked at Marx's theory of alienation. Whilst most people tend to think of Marx's economic theories the problem of alienation was of primary importance to Marx; to quote Ernesto "Che" Guevara:

"One of the fundamental objectives of Marxism is to remove interest, the factor of individual interest, and gain, from people’s psychological motivations"

Marx believed that all humans are naturally motivated by the creation of value and self development, thriving on challenges, regardless of class or situation. For example, take the stereotype of a football obsessed couch potato in a dead end job. Despite lacking in motivation in their work they seek pleasure from a study of football which is shared and developed with like minded friends. This study is so intense and focused it would put the most dedicated of academics to shame. How comes, under his own steam he can achieve so much yet is so despondent in his employment?

Marx argues the reason is that capitalism's methods of maximizing productivity actually create a system which alienates the worker and therefore fails in its aims. Inversely an environment without alienation is productive and produces value for all.

Marx described four types of alienation in labour:
1) From our product: we are separated from what we produce and its value.
2) From our productive activity: the product is outside of our control so work simply becomes a meaningless activity.
3) From other human beings (or other workers): we are isolated from each other, made to work independently, despite the fact that productivity is social in nature.
4) From our species being (or species essence): we are forced to specialize which removes the freedom to develop our capabilities therefore we loose stimulation and fail to be challenged.

Agile and Lean (though I am not sure if intentionally) recognize the problems of alienation and have strategies for removing them:

From our product
The importance of our role in providing value and creating a successful product are fundamental to Agile and Lean. Many practices focus directly on reducing the gap between the team and the end product such as keeping the customer close, delivering regularly and maintaing constant feedback. AgileLean is also focused on our role in creating value rather than simply meeting a set of personal objectives.

From our productive activity
AgileLean places us in control of the process and the system. Lean emphasis the importance we all have in the productive activity and empowers us to improve the process and eliminate waste. In Agile we are responsible and involved in all productive activities from planning and estimation, to picking up stories, to delivery and improving the agile process itself.

From other human beings
Agilists have always been keen on the social nature of development believing it to be imperative to the success of the project. Communication, knowledge sharing and working together is actively encouraged with techniques such as pairing, stand-ups etc. AgiLean environments are made up of people working closely together as a team rather than individuals in a group.

From our species being:
AgileLean is often critical of specialization. Instead agilean prefers cross-functional teams made up of multi (highly) skilled generalists. This creates an environment were people are challenged and are free to develop, on a day to day basis, in the directions they choose and not reduced to the criteria their performance management chart dictates.

The S and M labels often make people feel nervous, in some cases to the point of rejecting ideas completely because of the connotations. Socialism isn't short of its critics but agile and lean prove how we can address some of the most important concerns Marx had with the capitalist system in a way that makes business stronger (just look a Toyota's huge success in a very aggressive capitalist market compared to its more communist fearing cousins in the States). The success of agile and lean prove how much more productive we can be when we tackle the problems of alienation. This is why many of us find it so frustrating to see teams labelled agile who still operate in an alienated way.

Agile and lean teaches us that teams who recognize alienation and address it are ultimately more successful. By explicitly seeking to address alienation we can create healthier working environments which offer greater value at a higher rate of productivity. Now what right minded capitalist wouldn't want that?

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About Me

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West Malling, Kent, United Kingdom
I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.