Agile During the Time of War and Peace

May 2, 2019

One of the much-discussed topics amongst professionals is the reason why some companies are able to achieve success in transforming the ways in which they work and why others can’t and give up.

Agile During The Time Of War And Peace

When dealing with the many different ways of working, we hear a lot of interpretations and opinions. Many of these are thought about and shared by members of our agile community when they talk about their own experiences and struggles in trying to adopt an agile methodology into the companies they work for.

One of the much-discussed topics amongst professionals is the reason why some companies are able to achieve success in transforming the ways in which they work and why others can’t and give up. What causes their initial enthusiasm and desire for improvement to dampen and for them to lose faith in the effectiveness of a chosen methodology.

A while ago I decided to write an article on this topic. I gathered all of my thoughts and inputs that I had collected both from businesses and from individuals, each with the desire to adopt an agile mindset and to keep on improving their ways of working. I thought it would be worth shedding some light on what I think about this topic.

I don’t know where it first came from, but we often hear the phrase: “Agile is not the silver bullet”.

This concept of a bullet reminded me of Leo Tolstoy´s famous novel, War and Peace. While I don’t intend to create a literary analysis of the Russian masterpiece, Tolstoy’s characters from the 19th century, like modern-day employees, often struggle with problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture, in the process of adapting to change and to new ways of working.

What I’ve been observing is that there are two moments that can define whether adapting to and adopting agile will be a success or a failure. I call these moments the Time of War and Peace.

The Time of Peace…

The Time of Peace is what I consider to be the moment of buying into agile from all stakeholders. Teams are split between being reluctant or enthusiastic about change. At this point, the initial focus is typically on the potential benefits: predictability, transparency, empowerment, delivery at a faster pace. Even potential challenges are acknowledged as being part of the journey. Everybody is doing their best to absorb the principles and the values of agile. The collective energy level is high, and this process creates a new opportunity for people to build something together and become better at what they’re doing, while becoming a more united and autonomous team.

Teams are committed to making this work. Often, they repeat the mantra “Others have done it, so why can’t we?"

What amazes me is that they truly believe in the concept - obstacle after obstacle - they are adapting and making it work!


The Time of War…

As so often is the case for our species, when the going gets tough - doubts begin to arise. Just as everything seemed to be going so well. Why is momentum interrupted like this?

Like most things to do with human behaviour, this question doesn’t have a single and ultimate truth as an answer. Environment, faulty processes and human nature are all factors.

From what I’ve observed so far, it all boils down to pressure, which acts as the catalyst for the Time of War. Corporate environments often contain pressure from upper management who want to see unnaturally fast outcomes or returns on investment, with constant nudges from stakeholders fueled by a fear of failure, which push teams into untested waters too fast. If processes then break, they can lead to a lack of transparency and communication on the all-important what why and how to do things.

Both, resistance to change and pushing too hard for change, can lead to team burnout. And – when this happens – it’s all too easy to blame an idea or concept than it is to focus on people. An exhausted group will tend to prefer to go back to what they know and are comfortable with instead of spending more time and energy in fixing or adapting the lesser known thing – in our case, agile methodology.

So, what is there to do?

I consider an important failure point of any adaptation process to be when I hear the words: “this doesn’t work for me”. At this point, there is often no return.

I am a believer in step-by-step, incremental changes. A Big Bang approach puts far too much pressure on people and allows no real time for the mind to perceive and adapt to new ways of working. With small steps and iterative improvements, “Time of War” moments can be defused or avoided all together.

No matter how carefully we read, we are always likely to encounter “Times of War and Peace” but we need to keep our eye on the ball and remember that each moment is just one more obstacle that we need to clear before crossing the finish line and adopting new principles as part of our DNA. With every obstacle passed, it gets easier over time.

And then this is just the beginning of a continuous path to improvement.

It would be great to hear your thoughts on this topic.

by Eduardo Ribeiro

Enterprise Agile Coach at Critical Software

Agile Software Development