Question: Can Agile lead to meaningful work?
A team is considered as the most basic form of a group of people working together for a common purpose. It can be as small as 2 people and can go up to 10.
In Agile, a common thought is, small teams, self-forming, cross-functional, multi-disciplinary, and autonomous who can respond rapidly to changing market conditions. With this definition, it is easy to see a lot of application in the current work environment — where ways of working is often changing.
The size of the team is commonly viewed as a measure of capacity in output, minus the overhead of keeping the group effective. This overhead is seen as an effort in closing the gap of bringing members to a useful level of proficiency, to an alignment at every shift of knowledge and focus, and to a shared set of values in the group.
To imagine how a team can be formed and sustained, it may come from the nature of how we work together as a group. How then, is the challenge here, since if a team is not well-formed, the cost in overhead significantly grows.
Based on what brings people together, the essence in forming is rooted in our intentions, values, and beliefs. Depending on how much is shared and not, it influence how much effort is spent in keeping the team effective.
Skill-based is the most common way of forming a team, with a consideration of whether people are compatible with each other. What we consider as compatible, is in fact a primary factor in formation. Given that most technical skills can be learned quick to a useful level, and tools offer fast adoption, skills is the least of the concerns.
Perhaps, the effort should be the other way around, where finding shared beliefs and values comes first, then aligning on purpose and focus, and last, building knowledge and skills. Of course, the path is not always linear, and the sequence can interchange.
For example, purpose often comes first as the basis in forming a team, and then comes the basis on skills. However, after spending an initial effort on these two, next can be an effort in creating a common ground as a foundation to continue in working together. This foundation will bear the load as the other aspects in forming are developed.
Sometimes, in building the foundation, we find ourselves in situations of members with conflicting values. If it is not amenable and is critical, it can signal the team, that working together is not possible. Trying to continue without a good foundation, creates a negative impact on the team’s well-being, needs extra effort to achieve effectiveness, and creates a limit on the potential of the team. In this case, a good option is to re-form the team or allow people to leave.
How may we create this foundation for working together? There are actually many practices and tools that we can re-purpose for this aspect. For example, we can take what we know how to develop good products for our users, and use it to develop a good foundation that we can use. We may need to make adjustments for fit, however, the principles are the same. We focus the lens on us, and design our work based on who we are and how we behave.
Journey mapping, empathy mapping, are tools we can employ to learn more about ourselves. Systems thinking is another approach, to better understand the containers we are working in, and the behaviors we have observed. Another framework that is coming about, is Make Meaningful Work, which looks at how we may create work so it connects with our intentions, and contributes to our well-being.
In contrast to a foundation of a physical structure, the foundation of a team evolves over time. As we grow and learn new concepts, we also adjust our beliefs and values. Although, it takes time for changes to happen, but eventually they do, and when it happen, so should the team’s foundation.
Changes in this area is often for the better, specially since it is based in the experience of working together. On the other hand, it is a challenge, since this can mean, effort is needed to find a new common ground or can lead to break-ups. Fortunately, most change happen gradually and in increments, giving the team a chance to make adjustments in smaller scope.
In the individual level, we wonder, how may each of us participate in forming a team. Perhaps, it is already obvious that forming expects us to have an open and learning mind. How then we do this?
When we think of learning, we sometimes see that others learn better than others. How so? I realized in my own journey, that it matters how much i know and understand about myself, more than what i understand what is outside.
Learning is often seen as this understanding of what’s out there, acquiring new knowledge and practicing. I realized that, how we effectively integrate this, depends on what is already inside us. By being open, honest, and use what we know about ourselves, we can improve our learning effectiveness.
It takes courage to examine ourselves, and to rely on it specially when we think we know very little. We are afraid to be wrong, and worry what others will think of our ideas. This fear prevents us from learning, which in effect, makes us less effective in creating the foundation of a team.
Ego is another barrier to being open, and practicing gratitude and humility softens our sense of importance, lessens our perception of hierarchy, and provides us the conditions for others to come in.
As part in finding a common ground, perhaps a pre-cursor is an activity of improving our awareness of our self, creating conditions for learning, and building courage to bring ourselves to the group. Just as we are creating the foundation of a team, we also want to create the foundation of ourselves.
The foundation in knowing what are our values and our beliefs, and clarifying what are our intentions. Since it is likely that our fear of opening up, is driven by our concern of not knowing for sure what is in ourselves. Of course, this is in addition to studying the knowledge about our work, and practicing the skills needed.
To bring this topic in the context of creating software, a common thinking in software engineering, is we are primarily working with machines, hence most of our focus is ensuring we write good code, create performant systems, and are using the right tools. What is often missing is the perspective of us being impacted by what we create: this may be our users, may be our colleagues, or of other teams, who has to work in the system.
In fact, looking deeper on architectural designs and code patterns, many are based on the model of how we want to structure our ideas in machine form, and based on the model of how we want a group of programmers to work together. What we observe as designing for machines is in fact designing with the constraints of a machine. Instead, we are actually designing it for people to use (perhaps, with a heavy bias to ourselves). Makes us wonder, why most learnings in software, is limited around technical and technology topics.
How then we design the work of creating software, so it is based in our human nature? Is a question, i intend to study more, to dig deeper in the coming years, and which i consider as a mission in my life. I will write more about this in future essays.
What i see moving forward, is this repositioning towards designing work so we are doing it in a meaningful and useful way, based on our nature as human beings. And not only based on other aspects, such as economics, markets, business, and technology.
If Agile is based in our nature, then it probably can lead to meaningful work. Based on the published 12 principles, it gives a hint by its emphasis on motivated individuals, priority towards people and conversations, sustainability, and self-reflection for improvements. In my mind, what it advocates, perhaps already out of scope in the manifesto but i believe is implied, is that the principles can only happen within the container of a well-formed team. Since otherwise, how can people behave based on the principles without it?
Make Meaningful Work
I will be participating in a panel, this Sep 7, 2018 in Singapore, to talk more about this topic. If this topic interests you, i am happy to hear about it.
Future of Work Series: Can Agile lead to meaningful work?
Theme: How can teams stay relevant in an ever-changing business landscape disrupted by technology?
Fri, Sep 7, 2018, 7:15pm to 9pm
Collision 8, High Street Centre #08-08, 1 North Bridge Road, Singapore
I am attending a day-long workshop, happening earlier in the same day, on forming a dream product team, hosted by Dan Szuc and Jo Wong.
The Dream Product Team (workshop)
“Our aim is to create team environments where people from all disciplines in the team make, learn and thrive in a sustained and optimal manner.”
Fri, Sep 7, 2018, 9am to 5pm
Hackwagon Academy, 991D Alexandra Road #01-22/23, Singapore