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Making Agile Fun: Tools

Imagine, if you will, a carpenter, who you are interviewing for a shelving project in your home, sits before you and begins by saying, “Let me tell you about my new DeWalt circular saw with the AI adaptable, self-stabilizing laser line that virtually guarantees that every cut will be perfect!”

Now, if you’re an armchair carpenter, you may find this fascinating, but it doesn’t tell you much about your shelving project. While circular saws are certainly relevant to shelving projects, the audience is all wrong here.

To be sure, when carpenters get together, they want to talk about their tools, but I’ve got to believe they also talk about how to gain prospects and estimate jobs. They may even talk about different ways to interview clients to make sure there’s a good fit between the design and the desired outcome.

Maybe they don’t. Maybe, just like most agile practitioners, they just sit around and talk about tools all the time. Tools are fun! Tools are the instruments of our success! Good tools can make a difference. We should talk about tools. “What is your problem, Tom?” “Why do you keep badgering us about talking about tools?”

I can’t help but think that if we thought more about outcomes and less about tools, we might actually come up with some better tools almost by accident. A carpenter friend of mine, who has never designed a tool in his life, told me the other day about a pair of tile cutters that he wishes he could build. He knows this would be the tool of choice for every professional who cuts tile.

He knows this because he started out with the objective of getting the bathroom done quickly and properly and the dang tool he was using fell short. It was easy to imagine a tool that would work better, but nobody makes it. Why? Because the people who design and build tools aren’t the ones using them every day.

We, agile practitioners, don’t have that excuse. We just love our tools. Since we don’t have to deal with lots of manufacturing constraints, when we come up with a new tool to help our trade, we’re excited to share it. I get it! Meanwhile, we need to be thinking about the messages we convey. It’s no wonder there are many corporations doing “Agile Transformations” by implementing “tools.” It’s not like the executives at these companies don’t understand the outcomes they’re going for. It’s more like they’ve been convinced that the tools are the pathway to get there.

At A2Agile, we’ve started offering a program that we call “Peer Mentoring.” We think there’s a better name for it, but haven’t found it yet. I like “Critical Thinking Practice.” What we know is that tools be damned, if people can’t size up their situation and prescribe an action plan to move forward, nothing will help them. We don’t talk about this much because it’s harder to understand and even harder to teach.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying. In command-and-control organizations, senior leaders needed these critical thinking skills. In an agile organization, EVERYONE needs them! If people can learn this one important set of skills, they can invent their own tools and they’ll probably be better than the ones currently on the market.

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