What we can learn from Wildebeest about being agile

“Your only as young as the last time you changed your mind”

Timothy Leary

As the end of the year approaches I’m about to write-off all the blog entries I never wrote this year, all the ideas, notes and in a few cases complete entries which never made it to publication. As I described last year only a few blog ideas will be carried from 2022 to 2023. I’ll wipe the slate clean.

But as it happens this is a perfect example of something I’ve observed a lot of this year: how the past stops us form being agile. The baggage we carry from the past stops us from changing.

Think about it, if you want to be agile – in the original sense of the word, what do you need?

Fitness and more

Right off you need a certain fitness, you – human beings – need the ability to flexible your muscles, to move and to react. If your muscles are stiff and inflexible you can’t reacting. The same is true of teams and organizations need level of fitness in order to react. You need both the habits of reacting and the skills to react with.

But fitness isn’t enough, you also need to be aware of your environment: capable of detecting changes to start with, deciding to act and putting that decision into action. In an animal that means senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste) and a nervous system. An organization requires similar senses to watch competitors, technology changes, customer tastes and so on.

Organizations also requires a nervous system to communicate input from senses, translate it into action and communicate the action out. Unfortunately many fail, one department sees a new competitor but fails to communicate, and when it does people won’t listen, action falls down as people cling to the past ands existing plans.

The organization as an individual animal analogy breaks down because organizations have many decision makers – everyone decided for themselves how to react to new information and instructions. We might be better off thinking of a herd.

Recently I watched a wildlife programme were a herd of Wildebeest were attacked by lions. The herd needs collective agility, each member needs to be agile but they need to be able to act together and act cohesively with group agility.

Thats were things like agile practices and processes come in, team work too, and, yes, practice (training and rehearsals) so everyone knows how the herd will react. But agility isn’t just about out abilities and fitness. There are things that hold even the best teams back, and for lesser teams they make agility impossible.

Our teams and organizations are immobilised by the past: by the baggage we carry around.

Technical teams blame technical debt – a metaphor I dislike – but that is not the only form of debt.

As individuals we carry the debt of past experience: we remember when we were hurt, we remember when we took what we were told at face value (“This team is committed to high quality work”) and then criticised for the same thing (“I keep telling you, we don’t need perfect, only good enough”).

Organizations too are held back by organizational debt: sometimes actual monetary debt which incurs interest, or lender covenants which constrain action. Sometimes the debt is manifests as lack of trust – either between employees and employers, or companies and customers.

At a very basic level team backlogs are an example of the debt that prevents us being agile: the need to do backlog prevents teams from reacting – or if they do react, then not doing the backlog damages the trust they need.

And backlogs are just one, quite weak, form of promise that holds us back. Roadmaps and legal contracts are stronger. But breaking our promises reduces the trust we need. I didn’t say this was easy.

Then there is the problem of purpose: animals and herds exist to live, they aim to preserve life. Even though they may not admit it many companies are just the same, they aim to last as long as possible – even when they say “Increase earnings per share”. Then there are the many start-ups aim to sell out. Put that all together and the herd lacks common purpose, when attacked by a lion should you run or negotiate a higher price?

So why aren’t you more agile?

Are you fit enough? Are you exercising enough?
Is your team exercising together, training and rehearsing together so you can react effectively?
Are you carrying too many burdens? Technical debt? Excessive backlog? Too many promises?
Is your nervous system able to react? Or do you need to obtain too many agreements, sign-offs and authorisations before you can do anything?
Are you trusted to do the right thing? To react first and explain later?
And do you all share the ultimate goal?

Learning to be agile is the easy bit, I can teach you sprints, stand-ups, planning and stories in day. The difficult bit is unlearning: removing all the impediments, sorting out the debts, abandoning the old processes and learning to live in the now.

If agility is your future then don’t be scared of abandoning the past. In the words of John Cage: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

You can’t be agile if you are carrying a lot of baggage. Which is why next month I’ll write-off most of my unfinished blog posts.

Wildbeest image by Jasmine Nears, Creative Commons license (Wikicommons)


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