by Adrian Fittolani
The last three years at Envato have been an incredible journey for our company. We’ve grown as never before in our ten year history, maturing by necessity as we responded to commercial success, adding scores of people and settling on the delivery practices we would use.
As Envato’s Agile Coaching Lead and Program Manager, I feel lucky to have been a part of a process in which we defined what Agile means to us. We sought (and continue to seek!) a way of working that is true to our values and our people, one that helps them and the wonderful creative community we serve. Agile has helped us enormously in crafting our ways and evolving our culture…and yet something still bothers me.
One of my brothers is a school teacher. He finds it very easy to describe his job and its purpose, something that frankly as an agilist, I envy. He and I were at the football together recently with some of my workmates, when he excitedly joined a conversation we were having. “Oh, are you talking Agile stuff? Great! What’s it about?” he asked, as he tuned in. Naturally, it sounded to my colleagues as though he was asking “What’s this conversation about?” and they obliged him a quick catch up, but I knew he wasn’t. After years of being on the periphery of my professional life, my brother was taking an opportunity to gain some enlightenment. He was asking: “What is Agile about?”
Many times I’ve asked myself the same question. I’ve studied, pondered, debated, wrestled, abandoned, evangelised, molded, decried, discipled, loved and loathed Agile, allowing it to be something that helped define me, all the while frustrated at my inability to distill it to a consumable concentrate. I find it hard to describe. I’m frustrated because I feel Agile, but I can’t articulate the feeling. Hand-wavy, “it’s the vibe, it’s Mabo” descriptions are lame and have never helped me through a party conversation without hearing someone say “That’s a job?”
Here (I think), is the thing. I’ve always felt that something of its essence was innately part of mine. The people of Agile and the ideas they share, the sheer life they exude; I found all of it far too familiar to deny. However, the movement’s ambiguous (absent) definition of what qualifies as Agile subject matter, has frequently had me drowning in an ocean of blogs and literature, distractedly trying to keep up with what I felt was becoming no more than a narcissistic hashtag. #Agile doesn’t know what it is either.
My own Envato experience has helped me too. It’s been a period of constant personal learning. Leaders here are endlessly challenged to test their own attitudes and decisions against the real needs of the people they manage. It’s brutal, but it’s right and in examining that which I would hold up as “Agile” for our teams to embrace, it has led me to one main conclusion: it’s about producing great software.
Not that helpful I know, but in particular, I’m talking about the how bit. Agile is about agreeing on how we will produce great software together. It’s a simple idea that implies a lot.
The years I’ve spent around Agile teams have allowed me the privilege of seeing some incredible people achieve some wonderful things together. As a coach, you try to find the things those teams do which might translate to a teachable practice. There are many of course, technical and behavioural, but the one thing I’ve seen all high performing teams do well is talk.
Talk becomes important when a group identifies as a team. When several individuals value and desire the contribution of all the others, recognising that they’re unable to succeed alone, it follows that they must settle on ways of collaborating that suit them and give them their best chance.
Great teams talk about their goals; they talk about the way they’ll attack them. They talk about the problems they face and how they could be solved. They care enough to talk about the role each person plays, the appreciation they have for the things each person brings and the process that willl bring out the best in all of them. They talk about their work; about how it fits together. They talk about the effort and time involved and the impact their efforts will have on other people. They talk to and about other teams, other organisational functions and especially about those that will use their software. They talk about compromise and trade offs and they make decisions that they then go on to observe, united. Together.
Their conversations aren’t the main focus of their work. They’re deliberately succinct and on point. They are focused and last only as long as they need to. Every participant is engaged and alert.
Think about the multitude of Agile ideas you’ve ever been exposed to. Strip away the actual practices in question and they all involve a team taking ownership of their ways and taking the time to talk. Good coaching encourages talk. Break down any of the myriad exercises designed to impart novel team approaches and again, you’re left with a good old talk, one that actually imparts a shared understanding. Great teams do this stuff really well.
It’s getting harder to talk. New collaborative challenges await us as the irrepressible age of globally distributed teams truly awakens (at Envato and many other organisations, it’s already dawned!). In this environment, talk assumes a new guise, but it’s no less important.
So let me try to put it simply. Agile is about open, honest communication. Agilists care about that and have for years tried to find ways of working that encourage and protect it. It’s a simple philosophy and a very rewarding way to work.
That may not help my brother to understand it, but it’ll do me.