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One Agile Practice People Hate

Humans are wired to love routines. We crave a state of equilibrium. We want to reach a successful operating mode and hug that warm blanket as long as possible. When the environment throws us curveballs, which it inevitably eventually does, we reluctantly let go of our operating practices to adapt.

We’re built to adapt in order to achieve equilibrium. Along comes Agile. It asks us to never feel comfortable in a state of equilibrium. We should always feel out of balance so that we will be continually looking for better ways to operate. It’s not natural. It’s so unnatural that, without exception, every team I’ve ever been on essentially goes through the motions of change.

Rather than endure the disruption of change, they make tiny, inconsequential tweaks in order to demonstrate that “they are Agile.” They correctly point out that the disruption of change usually lowers the team’s ability to deliver customer value in the short term. How much of that can a team endure?

I wrote about continuous improvement being a misnomer recently. That piece focused on the lack of a flow state. I’d like to take that a bit further here. In particular, I’d like to pick apart the Agile principle: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” Specifically -- “at regular intervals.”

While I appreciate that the progenitors of Agility were attempting to avoid being prescriptive, they left the door open for the designers of Scrum to put a retrospective after every sprint. Certainly, nobody cried “foul” when the practice became common. “Regular intervals” puts a strain on teams to come up with improvements on demand. The notion that good ideas for change can have a cadence seems counterintuitive.

Why not wait until issues and/or opportunities emerge? Since we all crave equilibrium, why not just keep a watchful eye out for moments when there is a good reason to reflect? Daily reflection might be called for during particularly difficult periods. Other times, the team might be able to go months without the need to cause disruption to the flow of customer value delivery.

Regularity is not the right criterion. Maybe the real issue is that we must split “reflecting” and “tuning and adjusting” into separate activities. Reflecting is something that we should be continuously doing. This can be an informal process at both individual and team levels. It can be embedded into any discussion. Eventually, the team will align on the need for tuning and adjusting.

I have been told by Agile leaders that if the team isn’t finding improvement opportunities after each retrospective, they’re not doing it right. “We need to be continually taking actions to improve.” The whole enterprise is a big waste of time. The work that would have gotten done while the team was going through the motions of looking for improvement opportunities is likely to have been more valuable than the meager change that gets implemented.

Impactful changes are usually disruptive. The team decides that the cost is worth the benefits, and they absorb the disruption. Creating disruption at “regular intervals” is far less optimal than waiting for the right time and need level. Ceremonies need to serve value delivery. When they become a disruption from that, something has gone seriously wrong, and people know it.

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