Fighter jet, toothbrushing and agile rituals

When I am in position to talk about the topic that is so “obvious” to me while struggling to find the right words to explain it to the others, I often escape in metaphors, looking for inspiration in nature, other people quotes or anecdotes. Agile philosophy is one of these topics, as it has truly become part of my nature – or it probably always was. When I start talking about it, I very often find myself in kind of schizophrenic mood: saying that agile is a flexible but strict discipline at the same time.  At first, it looks as agile methodology is full of controversy, probably because it insists on practices that look conflicting at first sight:

  • It requires strong discipline of all members while it claims that it is a flexible methodology
  • It requires empowered teams and strong leadership
  • Some people (who actually don’t do agile) compare it to a cowboy coding although agile movement has brought so many novel testing practices

So, the real question is: How to find the right balance between stability and agility? 

Let’s start with my first metaphor for tonight:

The new generation of fighter jets have one design feature in common. They are designed unstable, which is intended to increase agility.

High stability and highly effective flight controls are therefore incompatible requirements. In stable aircraft a compromise has to be made. However, no concessions need to be made in unstable aircraft.

Any pilot will find it very hard to control an aircraft like this without assistance. A computer (“fly by wire system”) is needed to provide necessary stability.

Practices such as standup meetings, iterative development, continuous integration, pair programing, TDD, serve as “fly by wire” system in agile. Although most of these practices should be applied to any methodology, there are crucial to agile, without them agile can’t fly. 

Great, it is all good and settled, so let’s check how it goes with one typical agile team during retrospective meeting:

What was I thinking first time my mother asked me to brush my teeth? I can’t remember, but I don’t think I really enjoyed it. Toothpaste doesn’t taste that great and rubbing your mouth with a toothbrush is not that exciting. While I still do it, I don’t think about it any more (unless I try to write some silly blogs) and that is why we call such activities “ritual” behavior: you do some things not really thinking about how and why you do them.

When you start working, no matter where, on no matter what, there will be things you like to do – aaaaand other things. The same is true for other people around you, sure about it. You may say: hey, hold on a second, how about motivation? Isn’t it all about autonomy, accountability and stuff like that? People will just do it, give them some space, right conditions  and things will happen, no? Well, noooo. Doesn’t really work like that – always. You see, some people confuse motivation and toothbrushing, and this is not the same thing. Your job as agile manager is to do both things, keep people motivated and engaged, and at the same time, sometimes, annoy people by asking them to be consistent. That is most of the time hard with things that they don’t like, part of the job that is not natural to their nature. In that case, motivation really doesn’t help, you need to use some other tricks, or like I put it here: “If you want to keep the ball rolling, make sure it is ticking.” In order to create a ritual behavior in the group, you need to do two things: make the outcome of the activity clear to everyone and fix the frequency when this activity is performed. So, let’s see how to do it:

  • Make the goals clear to everyone
  • Make sure everyone understand his/her part in the big picture
  • Give people space, autonomy and accountability (don’t ask folks to play piano with handcuffs around their wrists)
  • Make the checkpoints visible to everyone – such as percentage of the code tested, the number of bugs found in time, logging of activities in tools (in case you have multi site)
  • For each checkpoint define the activity and fix the frequency at which you want to review the results
  • Check the outcomes
  • GOTO 1


Tip: you can use the same methodology if you wish to loose some weight or prepare for the next year marathon. 

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