When asked what Agile is, my response always varies. Fundamentally, I say the same things, speaking to flexibility, fast feedback, and iterations. However, I couldn't help but wish I had a perfect definition of Agile — a quick, to-the-point elevator statement I could carry around with me. Then, a few months ago, an event triggered an idea, ultimately curing this predicament.
One day while watching television with my cat napping on my lap, the doorbell rang. In a split second, the cat did a backflip over my head, turned his body, and landed perfectly on the floor. Before I knew it, he was halfway into the dining room and then cut right toward the kitchen. This acrobatic feat got me thinking. Over the next few days, I began to watch him closely and realized that no matter how high he leaped or how awkwardly he jumped, his landing was always gold-medal worthy. I witnessed him hop eight feet into the air and balance on top of a quarter-inch glass shower door. Moments later, he stood motionless for more than 30 minutes, tracking with laser-sharp focus the movement of a lizard in the backyard.
A couple of weeks later, I read an article by Craig Larman posted in the Experts Perspectives: Spotlight section of the Scrum Alliance website titled "Less Agile or LeSS Agile?" In the article, Mr. Larman wrote, "In short, Agile is for agility." That simple yet powerful statement resonated with me. Agile is truly about being agile
, the very definition of the word. It's not science. It's not complicated. It's just a way of being. It was then that I knew I had my elevator statement, as well as a more detailed and thorough explanation that could follow. The Agile CAT was born.
The Agile CAT
As many can attest, defining Agile can be difficult. Not because it's a hard concept to grasp but because our community is such a beautiful mix of various backgrounds, experiences, and schools of thought. Some refer to Agile as a method, while others may say it's an approach. Naturally, it becomes even more convoluted when we start attaching words like Scrum, XP, or Kanban to it. Are these frameworks or processes? Are they under the Agile umbrella, or are they stand-alone concepts?
We generally look for a way to accurately name something for what it is and explain what it entails. There is no right or wrong answer as long as the very essence of these words or phrases can be properly conveyed. That's where the use of a metaphor comes into play. And referring to Agile as a cat is no exception, because it overlays a cat's nature with the nature of Agile.
Since many of us are familiar with the general behavior of cats, we can recall their actions fairly easily in order to understand and remember the concept of the nine lives.
The nine lives
We've heard the myth that a cat has nine lives. Some people believe cats have multiple lives because they witnessed one survive in a situation that would have been deadly to most other animals. What may be tragic to some may not always be tragic to others, if we know how to land on our feet. While this amazing feat of agility comes naturally to our favorite feline, for us it's a skill that can be learned and perfected with practice, dedication, and belief.
In order to help us get started on our quest for agility, a series of stages (lives) are outlined in the rest of this article as stepping-stones. In keeping with the theme, these stepping-stones will be in the form of lives. It's important to keep in mind that the explanations provided are not requirements. There are many ways these stages can be approached; some may even be repeated or skipped. How they're used is up to the user, but I'll offer my version using a story of a hungry cat named Chester, on the hunt for dinner.
9 Lives of the Agile CAT
Life #1: Question
Find your purpose
Chester wants food.
You begin your journey by first asking yourself what you're trying to achieve. What is it that you're working on exactly? Why are you starting this project? Who is it going to benefit? Without having a clear vision of your end state, you self-impose unnecessary challenges that become more difficult to address as you progress with your project. When all members of a team are not on the same page, they begin to introduce communication breakdowns, waste, and delay. Making an investment up front can help you avoid some of the barriers that you may face later in the project.
Simplify the direction
Chester chooses which way to go.
Becoming a successful team requires members to agree on the course they're headed on. This can include important decisions such as how they will approach the project, or trivial ones such as deciding on whether they need a timekeeper during meetings. They can't assume everyone wants the same thing. Respecting individual perspective and trying to understand each other is a crucial first step in building the camaraderie that leads to becoming a strong team. Additionally, companies that have numerous layers of management and have not fully embraced Agile can create roadblocks for a team that is supposed to be self-organizing. It is important that the proper representative, be it a project manager, ScrumMaster, or Agile coach, help avoid the impediments brought on by a lack of understanding on the part of non-team members.
Clear the path
Chester doesn't waste time.
While finding your purpose and simplifying the direction is crucial, it's important to keep in mind that you can't account for everything at the beginning. Since you don't have a crystal ball to tell the team how everything will play out, take it one step at a time. You need to do the best you can with what you have and get started quickly. As the team gains experience and learns new things, it will inspect and adapt accordingly. For example, setting up countless meetings over the span of a few weeks to ensure that you have your ideal start will just convolute the road you're about to take. Figure out a few important items, such as whether the team wants to use Scrum or Kanban (or both), and get moving. Remember, being Agile means that you are flexible enough to change. What you decide now is not written in stone; it can be changed later if it makes sense.
Life #2: Hunt
Assess the situation
Chester checks his surroundings.
Once the team gets going and has been moving along for a few days, take a few minutes to see whether everyone is in agreement with the path you're on. Will a significant change need to be made before making an important decision? The team should assess the current environment, whether it's the team dynamics, tools being used, or the direction they're headed. Performing these periodic temperature checks can provide facts you hadn't taken into account before. New information is time sensitive, so the longer you take to act, the less valuable it becomes.
Chester finds his meal.
Sometimes you can get caught up in "the doing" and don't realize that certain decisions should be made before moving forward. What do you need in order to be successful? Do you need to create a backlog to help keep the team organize? Should you have release planning sessions going forward, based on what you've seen so far? Are there metrics you should formulate to track your progress? Based on the knowledge you have accumulated, the goal is to make the best decisions that lead to the most value.
Avoid tunnel vision
Chester looks for ways to acquire his meal with ease while looking out for threats.
Is there anything you're missing or haven't considered? Engaging in simple brainstorming sessions with teammates can yield amazing ideas. There may be emergent opportunities that you're not seeing that can lead to reduced costs, risks, and even lead times. On the flip side, you sometimes have the tendency to ignore red flags and consider them as anomalies. When something doesn't smell right, a cat gets exponentially more curious. So, get curious. Investigate the smell, but don't forget that curiosity killed the cat. In this case, it kills time, so don't waste too much time going down a rabbit hole. Completely disregarding certain clues can lead to negative consequences as well. Just be mindful of your time.
Life #3: Focus
Keep your eye on the prize
Chester doesn't get distracted by the squirrel.
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is not effective. Studies have shown that doing two things at a time reduces our efficiency and may result in errors. Working on one task at a time helps focus the flow of our thoughts. When you're consistently switching between tasks — toggling between different files, getting in touch with another contact, using a different system or program — you lose time. Losing time can then cause you to miss certain deadlines or, worse, force you to take shortcuts that can be detrimental to quality.
Chester is steadily climbing the tree.
Depending on the type of approach being used by the team, there may or may not be metrics that specifically track your progress. But even if the team has decided to produce data to show their trending, you should still perform self-checks occasionally. Do you feel like you're learning new things and continuing to grow? Having this self-awareness or inviting others to provide feedback can contribute greatly to your personal and professional development.
Don't give up on quality
Chester knows jumping on a lower but thinner branch can cause it to break.
We talked earlier about taking shortcuts. Finding a way to complete a task faster is a good thing, but not if it comes at the cost of negatively impacting quality. Streamlining, automating, or enhancing processes can help save considerable time and possibly reduce errors. Before fully implementing the change, however, you should do an experiment, or spike, to confirm whether the residual impact is beneficial. If you find that your change can eventually lead to considerable delay due to rework or defects, you should not be enticed by the short-term gains. Remember, being Agile is about using new information to make valuable decisions. Value should be taken into consideration for both the near term and the long term.
Life #4: Leap
Chester has climbed a tree many times. He's confident he can do it again.
The mind has an interesting way of gaining certainty of our capabilities. As you go through trials and tribulations, accomplish difficult tasks, and overcome what you sometimes may feel is impossible, you slowly begin to confide in your abilities and stop second-guessing yourself. Your successes are like building blocks. Each time you succeed, the force of your confidence builds another block onto itself. The result is a snowball effect, whereby it becomes easier each time to improve yourself and, hence, trust in what you can do.
Chester is scared to jump from one tree to another, but he knows he'll be OK.
One of the greatest aspects of Agile is that it's an iterative approach. No matter what you're working on, you have periodic checkpoints with the team, stakeholders, or customers. If applying Scrum, for example, the sprint is generally no longer than four weeks, followed by a sprint review and retrospective. One of the benefits you can realize from this is simply that a failure is not the end of the world. Sure, it may have wasted a few weeks or caused you to not deliver on time, but that's why you inspect and adapt. The true failure is if you continue to do the same thing and not learn from your mistakes. So don't let fear be the guide; let it be your motivation.
Test the waters
Chester looks for his meal in a new tree.
Once you trust yourself and learn to manage your fear, it becomes easier to be creative. You might restrict yourself because you're not sure what the outcome will be, or you're scared of what people might think. The detriment of having these concerns is much larger if you miss a potential opportunity than if you always play it safe. Like hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take." While that quote rings true for these purposes, everything has its time, place, and degree. So take your shots, but be careful not to turn your world upside-down with a shot that's too risky. However, be open to taking calculated risks through experimentation and experience. Doing so can prove to be a small cost that garners a huge return.
Life #5: Balance
Stay on course
Chester makes sure he has a good grip on a branch.
Having made the leap to your next phase of Agile development, you should have a check-in with the team. Some call this a retrospective, while others consider it another brainstorming session. The main purpose is to find out whether everyone is on the same page with the current state and the direction they're taking. Depending on the longevity and maturity of the team, this could mean a short session, or it could take a few hours. What do you want to continue doing and what do you want to change? If you're a new team, you may discuss the results of experiments you've recently performed or share information you've come across that will help the whole group. If you're a seasoned team, you may just want to touch base quickly on a few matters and get going again. Taking the time to huddle helps pull all of you together and avoid potential issues down the road.
Evaluate the law of the land
Chester explores the new tree to make sure he's comfortable on it.
One of the reasons you check to make sure that you're all on the same page is because of implicit and explicit policies. Your implicit policies are the norms you believe everyone on the team is following. They are not formalized, so there usually is no oversight to confirm adherence. What this can result in is individuals thinking you're all following the same rules, procedures, or beliefs, when in actuality your norms do not fully align. Having that open dialogue and asking questions will help clarify these disconnects. Even when policies are formalized, they can be lost in translation. These explicit policies may also change without your knowledge, so it's always a good idea to share new information with the group in case they're not privy to it.
Measure your metrics
Chester thinks about his progress so far and decides whether he needs to change anything.
Depending on the environment you're working in, the group may be required to produce multiple reports to show its progress. Even if you have something like a Kanban board that is easily accessible, there always seems to be a high demand for reports. What you want to avoid, however, is taking up precious time to track data that isn't providing much value. You shouldn't do something just because you've always done it a certain way. The time you save by eliminating waste can be better used to improve the team in other ways. For example, you can explore new methods of keeping track of various aspects of your work or enhancing the current method. As always, you should inspect and adapt.
Life #6: Pursue
Chester uses his confidence and refined skills to conquer new heights.
As you begin your transition to a matured team, you should harness the energy that you've gained through each accomplishment and build on it. The more you create, experiment, and achieve, the more you gather momentum and build solid routines. This type of momentum is contagious and further stimulates the growth of the team. As a result, you become immune to random distractions and impediments. It is imperative, though, that you continue to build on the things that have helped you through your progression and do not fall prey to bad habits.
Chester begins to run faster.
It's common sense that you can get from point A to point B more quickly if you go faster. However, there's a big difference between speeding and rushing. Moving at higher speeds can result in more frequent deliverables, which in turn will make your stakeholders and customers happy. Since you've built a strong foundation, the team can begin to increase speed and determine whether there are any benefits. Are they completing more tasks? If so, is there an impact on quality? When you begin to experience defects and other errors, you need to analyze your work stream to ensure that you're not rushing. Increasing speed is great, but not when it comes at a price that you cannot afford.
Maintain a sustainable pace
Chester doesn't exert all of his energy at one time.
When you reach the speed you've set as your goal, you must assess it to ensure it's the right one for the team. Is the pace you're working at — tasks, meetings, feedback, and deliverables — something that you can continue for weeks? Months? The key is not only to sustain the pace that's right for the team, but you must also be able to maintain it. What good does it do if you can keep it up for only a couple of weeks and then get exhausted? You can always exert a great deal of effort for a short period of time, such as working excessive overtime, but that eventually causes you to run out of fuel. Being worn out can result in ineffectiveness, decreased quality, low morale, and a lack of motivation. Every team works differently, so find the pace that works best for the current team.
Life #7: Soar
Push the limits
Chester chooses to be stealthy, fast, and dedicated during his pursuit.
The idea that there is always room for improvement is one you need to be open-minded about. No matter how wonderfully you're doing or the numerous accolades you might receive from peers, managers, or customers, change is inevitable. As your environment changes, so must you in order to stay ahead of the curve. Taking proactive measures can prevent reactive catastrophes. Therefore, when the team achieves a mindset of not settling for complacency, inspecting and adapting becomes second nature. You don't rest on your laurels and fool yourself into thinking that you're perfect and continue without the behaviors that have yielded such advancement. In fact, you should seek more feedback, question processes, hunt for different information, and focus on continued growth.
Challenge the norm
Chester tries to lure in his meal rather than chase after it.
As individuals, we inherently seek to find our comfort zone. This allows us to feel more secure, content, and confident in the work we are doing. For some, a comfort zone is arriving to work and departing the same time every day. For others, it may be having amicable working relationships with peers or managers. As a team, you seek to have continuity and avoid fixing something if you feel it is not broken. Being spoiled by stability, however, can sometimes cause you to overlook brewing chaos. Exercising your creativity and looking outside of the box motivates you and those around you. You should aim to never be surprised by a problem, but rather welcome it like an expected guest.
Set a new bar
Chester reaches a new level in mastering his abilities and practices.
Your team strove to reach a stage in its development in which it can comfortably question ideas or consider itself as expert in a field. While your journey is never-ending, the level of comprehension and the actions you exhibit truly define you and the direction you're headed. You know deep in your core that challenging each other is a great thing, sharing knowledge and experiences is pleasing, and exemplifying leadership is humbling. Whether you seek to give back to your Agile community or enjoy the personal accomplishment silently, you can get satisfaction in knowing that you've reached such great heights and still have room for more.
Life #8: Land
Chester finally has something to eat.
You've arrived. It's time for the world (or a few people) to see the fruit of your labor. What you've produced, even if it was not 100% successful, was a learning experience. It's no secret that working in teams is no easy feat, but if you're at this point, you stuck with it, dealt with the ups and downs, and learned that failing is just temporary. Reaching your goals is a choice, and while various individuals or circumstances can generate tough barriers for you to go through, perseverance is something that must come from within. To produce value, you must harness your own value.
Reexamine your quest
Chester thinks about all of the things he went through to satisfy his hunger.
How did we get here? What did we do well? What could we have done better?
It's important for you to pause and ask yourself these types of questions once you deliver the work you have committed to. This can be done in the traditional form of a Scrum retrospective or by any other means you feel is suitable for the team. While all your recent education and experiences are fresh in your mind, you should take the opportunity to discuss it collectively and see what you can learn. It may be a good idea to have a few takeaways and touch base down the road to see whether you were able to implement any of them. It's possible that what you came up with isn't relevant, or you may realize that you stumbled on an amazing idea.
Life #9: Play
Chester hangs out with his friends.
You'd like to think that most people are hardworking and have good intentions for their team. Because of this, you can sometimes get carried away with your work and not stop to celebrate your success. You must take pride in the work you do, even if you feel it wasn't your best. Getting down on yourself or on others does nothing but add a useless complexity: doubt. Doubt can be a dangerous thing if not attended to or quickly squashed. You must also remind yourself that your quest is one of seasons — some days are warm and sunny, some days are cold and dreary. But this phase is one of rejoicing. So revel in your team's victory with a fun outing or team-building event.
Chester thanks his parents for helping him learn how to find a good meal.
One of the unfortunate aspects of teamwork is that recognition is frequently neglected or overlooked. We've all had moments where we feel grateful for someone who was there for us when we needed them, or even went out of their way without being asked. Such acts are not rewarded nearly enough. A simple thank-you can go a long way for most people, and it may brighten their day more than we could ever imagine. Take the time to show gratitude toward those who deserve it.
Take a breather
Chester takes a nap after a long day.
Speaking of neglect, how many of you start a new year and realize you had vacation time that expired? Why did this happen? Is it because the world can't go on without you? Does not taking time off show your commitment? You must love yourself just as much as the next person and show yourself the same courtesy you do to others. Yes, your life does, ironically, get in the way, and you do lose track of how quickly the months go by. But like everything else we've discussed, you must get the balance right. Inspect and adapt.
Where does Chester go now?
While Chester's quest is not one that most of us would literally take, we can use the nine lives outlined here to connect with our inner cat and strive to be flexible, energetic, and self-aware. Our capabilities are immensely powerful and should never be limited to the confines of our self-prescribed borders. Anything learned and mastered previously, regardless of the framework or concept being used, should be carried over to our next journey. By embracing our curiosity, experience, and effort, we can then collectively become a CAT — a Confident Autonomous Team.