“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

This quote is used frequently by Scrum Masters who, innocently, are trying to encourage their teams not to be bogged down by disappointment and failure. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I have to assume it’s being used as a call to action, a rallying sentiment meant to inspire hope and ward off despair when things don’t go according to plan. The problem is that there are implications and gaping holes when using this type of language.

A journey still has a destination even if that’s not what this ill-defined “it” is about. A journey can still be in the wrong direction without course correction or a concrete understanding of where the sojourners want to end up. As Scrum practitioners, we should be caring very much about what it means to be “done”, right? There’s something fundamentally flawed about our understanding when it comes to organizational change, the efforts involved, and the approach we take to handle process change management and the inevitable bulwark of naysayers and bureaucracy.

When I hear “Agile transformation”, it conjures images of superheroes who, having encountered some supernatural element, wake up one day to find that everything has changed, they are no longer who they were, and somehow, in the blink of an eye, they’ve become a completely different species. The reality is more akin to a complicated heart transplant procedure than a picturesque caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly. There’s a lot at risk, it’s a delicate process, and even if it’s successful, it’s going to require careful attention over the long haul.

What could go wrong?

Risk is a threat that what you have today, you may not have tomorrow. The nature and context of the risk that Agile software delivery can inhibit is a far cry from the necessary risk that its practice and usage incurs. Paradoxically, in order to ensure that the losses resulting from an increment of product are limited, we are asked to let go of a lot: assumptions, habits, sense of control, power.

We cannot expect that success will result from learning if we don’t admit we have something to learn; we cannot simultaneously hold customer satisfaction and personal gain as highest priorities; we must both admit that change is necessary and then actually change – good intentions quickly turn to neglect if left only as motivational quips.

Strangely, there is a leap of faith needed here but the leap is from the unknown to the known. Instead of holding on to the illusion that we are capable of turning the tide, we are adjusting to account for the world around us as we see and measure it. We aren’t shackled to the past because we acknowledge our experience as only one small contributing factor towards advancement and recognize and accept the value of diversity. Avoidance of fear is natural (“Don’t look down!”) but we ought to keep our eyes open, looking forward – we might find the chasm is shorter and more shallow than we imagined.

Leveraging the butterfly effect

Subtlety can be a powerful tool – maximizing the value of words not spoken. However, it is incredibly difficult, as it is, to say what you mean let alone mean something that you didn’t say. The outcome can be a conclusion that’s come to that not only has consensus but a more deeply shared ownership, almost pride. These are the agreements we hope for because the ripples of mutually designed concepts grow to become far more than their initial intimations.

We can build on these seemingly small areas of cohesion and understanding to reveal larger impactful ways of working. It seems a natural progression, to me, that if we come to the table with a host of ideas and we agree that some of them are terrible, then the only way to find out which ones are great and which ones are faulty is to test them out. Why, then, would we put up self-imposed barriers like departmental divides or top-down management or communication tools in the way of learning if we can avoid them?

The opposite outcome, lest we forget, is also possible. A well guided idea misplaced is useless and a well meant piece of advice that’s misguided can ruin trust. This isn’t playing politics at work or being manipulative; this is emotional intelligence coupled with an earnest drive to see untapped brilliance come alive. But the balance is delicate, it’s not always predictable because the meaning of language can be subjective and the lasting reach of our words and actions should be taken seriously.

Pay attention

We are not just creatures of habit but, more specifically, we have fundamental attachments to our first-learned patterns and systems. There are well worn paths that we naturally will follow like a river carving ever deeper through the silt. It is one thing to learn a concept, another to incorporate it, and a final for it to become part of our muscle memory.

Truly embracing the Agile values and principles is like unravelling a ball of Christmas lights – that tangled incomprehensible mess must be carefully taken apart piece by piece. Once we can start to use them, though, we also have to make sure that we don’t shove them back in a storage box as if we’re never going to need them again.

Redundancy can actually be a keenly effective method for generating repeatable, second nature patterns. The challenge is to propagate conceptual redundancies that drive behavior. Typically we think of motivational paradigms as being driven by behavior or emotion. Perhaps there is a way to create space for both.

No matter what, though, it seems inevitable that we will need to be brought to remember the things that were not in our initial repertoire. Perhaps a mark of progress could be how frequently the need arises to hit reset and redefine our circumstances through the lens of continuous growth and learning (and the resulting effects of the collateral upset).

The good news is that we aren’t alone; I am continually inspired by the humble stories of discovery and recovery from my peers and mentors. I anxiously anticipate a future state where success might be consistently measured by the correlation between the unique corporate social environments that are created and customer delight. I am hopeful that new and better ways of interacting will be unearthed that allow for vulnerable community and passion. I am proud to play even a small part in that kind of transformation.


Written by Matt DeFusco