Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Principle of the Agile Path

After hearing Andy Stanley speak on The Principle of the Path, I realized that it addressed a number of issues that I commonly see with teams or organizations trying to start or grow their adoption of agile practices. I recently shared about the Principle of the Agile Path at the Agile Comes to You event in Orange County.

Years ago, I agreed to join my friend Joe on a hike up San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California. I purchased a map of the trails and got my equipment ready to go. Days before the hike, he decided to try a closer peak, Mount Baldy, but make up for the lower challenge in elevation by adding miles to the length of the hike. I wasn't find maps for the entire hike, only the beginning, and that proved a significant point later on. The hike itself started fine, at the trail head at 6 A.M., with a plan to be at the summit just after lunch and down by late afternoon. That left some time to get to the local diner at have a hearty, celebratory meal. We did indeed make the summit on time. Joe was full of excitement and wanted to tack on one additional challenge - go back down via a different route. It was an unmarked, gravelly bowl on the side of the mountain. All we had to do was head down and the trail would become apparent soon enough. The first hour or two was fun and easy, but we didn't come across the trail yet and we were out of food. We decided to change our angle somewhat, but an hour later were still without a trail, and now without water. By now we should have been back at the trail head, so we went towards what we thought was a trail we saw. We went up and down large slopes and through waist-high brush. Still nothing, only hungry and thirsty now, and the sun was starting to go down. Out of options and getting desperate, we decided to go aggressively straight across the mountain, up and over one side of the mountain, then two, and then we ran into a small, impassable, 100 foot gorge. The only way around was to go back up the mountain and drop into the riverbed below. By that time, it was dark. Having hiked 12 miles over 13 hours, We were exhausted, scraped up, out of food, water and energy. With no overnight supplies, we contemplated what it would be like to sleep on the rocky bed with no protection.

That was not the destination I had planned on when we left that morning. My intention was that at 7 P.M., I would be relaxing at a greasy spoon restaurant with a hamburger the size of a dinner plate in front of me, celebrating with Joe about our successful hike. But my intentions didn't matter when we started down from the summit. What mattered was our direction. That's the Principle of the Path.

Your Destination is Determined By Your Direction, Not Your Intention
You may want to repeat that once or twice. Try replacing some of the words with your company or team's verbiage, i.e. - "Our Goal is Determined By Our Decisions and Actions, Not By Our Mission Statement", or "Our Final Stage is Determined By Our Activity, Not By Our Over-arching Strategy." However you need to adjust it to hit home, the point is that where you will end up is not about what you want to happen, but about what is happening. Let's look at the four aspects of the Principle of the Agile Path.

1. You are on a path
For those wondering when you might start your journey into agile, you are already on an agile path. You are moving, things are already in motion. The question is where is, more accurately, what direction are you headed? Since my adventurous hike, I have since purchased a wonderful hand-held tool that let me know what direction I'm headed.

2. You often don't know that you are off course
I recently heard an agile coach comment that when he hears, "We can't do that here," he responds, replace that statement (at best inaccurate) with the truth "You can do it here, it's just a matter of how hard will it be and are you willing to do whatever it takes?" So, are you off course or on course? Unfortunately, we often don't know when we're off course or lost. When I was hiking, there was no dotted line along the ground that indicated we were off course, and how especially true this is when you are trailblazing. When going down the road, you may see many signs, but you won't see the sign that says, "You, in the blue sedan! Turn around - you're going the wrong way!"

I was on a trip recently, and have become much better at finding my way. I had the directions to my hotel in Mountain View ready in advance. I followed the signs perfectly and found the hotel without missing a turn. When I went to check in, the friendly clerk told me that I did not have reservations. Without trying to appear too smug for being in the right, I showed him my printed reservation information. "Sir," he replied, "that reservation is for our location in Cupertino." Think critically about your destination, because you could be on the wrong path while following all the right signs to a wrong destination.

3. You need objective feedback
This is also important because you can feel good about the situation and still be going in the wrong direction. I felt great about my hike hours into going the wrong way. I felt great about the hotel trip all the way up to the check-in counter. And don't set the bar so high for who you ask to listen to you and give feedback.

Given that so many challenges are rooted in people (and the culture that comes out of a group of people), you could get this feedback from friends, peers or colleagues over lunch, email or regular collaboration such as coaching circles (weekly conference call for like-minded professionals).

4. Judgement = Time and Experience
The core of value in objective feedback is that it is based on good judgment. Good judgement comes from time and experience. Even though the average professional football player has more experience than many in agile, you will still find someone on the sidelines guiding their progress. Their coach is someone with more time and experience around the game, and who is somewhat physically removed from their effort and activity.

Take a moment right now and consider where you, your team and your organization are heading on your path of agile adoption. Write down what you feel good about, what concerns you and write down the name of a person that you will contact today - take the bold step of reaching out and begin getting some objective feedback. They may just be the person to tell you to take a different way down the mountain.

You can watch some of Andy Stanley's talk here.

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