What is Agile?

FI-smartbits-Q4-Tathagat-Varma-What-is-Agile-

(In this SmartBits, Tathagat Varma outlines “What is Agile?“.  The video is at the end of this blog)

Software is a problem-solving process, where we are trying to take a shot at how we should be solving the problem. What is the best way of solving the problem? Looking at the philosophical element, a software is a way in which we are encoding a problem, solving from a given point of view. A designer would think of a  particular way to solve the problem and encoding that in a medium. Software is only a medium. It could have been any other medium for example , in which a problem could be solved.

What is the right way for us to solve the problem? Should we have a world view which is based on ‘we-the-designer’ or should we have a world view based on you as a  ‘we-the-consumer’. If you are the customer who is the real consumer of that? This needs to be understood.

Philosophically the first most important thing is to understand we are not building software for ourselves or for people like us. We are building software for a given audience and we need to be mindful and respectful of how they solve the problem. The philosophical element is really about, whom are we building for and are we mindful of the fact that this is how people solve the problem.

The mindset is the way, where we take the next step forward, where we say that now that we have understood the world view from how people look at it, how do we really solve the problem. Should we wait for a fully baked way of doing it. The basic idea is we cannot solve the problem in a single pass.

Every complex problem is best solved in a very iterative manner in a very collaborative way in which do not treat our consumers as just passive consumers i.e whatever we dish out to them, they will accept it. Even without the software they are solving the problem day in and day out which means they have some wisdom about how a good solution should work out. If I partner with them and treat them as a co-creator rather than a passive consumer then I can actually create a better solution. Mindset is all about stating that they are not passive consumers, they are co-creators, they are our team, so we start teaming up with them.

The Agile mindset very simply is something that we keep borrowing from the work from a Stanford professor Carol Dweck. She wrote this book on mindset where she talked about fixed mindset vs growth mindset, where the whole idea is that some people have a fixed mindset- this is the only way this should be done and have a very strong point of view. They are not willing to budge from that opinion. Then, there are people who think maybe there is a better way of doing it, maybe there are other ways in which we can grow, we may not succeed in that but in the process of doing it, will stumble upon the truth and that will help us eventually get to the right solution.

Having that kind of a mindset where we are open to experimentation, open to learning, willing to take some meaningful risk, not scared of failure, willing to keep iterating over is the need of the hour. We need to have a culture that really supports these kinds of mindsets. This is the third aspect here.
In organisations where making mistakes is a considered sin, where an individual gets reprimanded for failing,  Agile thinking will not work. Agile demands tolerance for intelligent failures. We need to have an appetite where we can say this person made a mistake. let us have a small party, let us learn from that person.  If it is a great mistake we make a big deal out of that.

That Agile mindset will not fit into a very conventional kind of a culture where people say do not make any mistake, do everything right the first time, everything has to be Six Sigma. A very nice quote by a management professor Gary Hamel, where he said thank God for the biological screw-ups, if not for that we would still be slime, because in a Six Sigma world, evolution would not have happened, if animals did not genetically recombine with each other in novel ways.  

If we are really looking at very creative ways of doing things and are looking for finding some novel solutions to that, one has to have a tolerance for bringing the Agile mindset into the workplace. Agile mindset is like the seed that requires an Agile culture as a fertile ground, otherwise it will not sprout.
Tools, methods and processes are the fourth and the fifth-order extensions, because in order for us to do the job properly we need the tools. Unfortunately people get it totally wrong, they ignore the holistic part of why we are doing it, the whole philosophical element, the mindset and culture, they straight away jump onto tools and methods bandwagon, because that’s the easiest thing to sell. The tools, methods and processes are the fourth and fifth order functions of the core thing but the whole idea is if we don’t start on some of these basics, we will never get to the point. If we start only with the tools, it might give a short-term win but then it’s not sustainable and definitely not be scalable in the long run.

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