The Agile Manifesto – Essay 2: Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

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This value is the hardest to do well.

In IT and high-tech, there is a “natural” prevailing culture that makes this first value incredibly difficult.  This difficulty is rooted in traditional “scientific management“, but made even more so by a critical additional factor that is mostly invisible: techies solve problems with tools.

Management wants to define processes with clearly described activities, clear inputs and outputs, and clear sources and recipients of the activity (see the description of SIPOC for an explanation of this thinking).  Techies build tools to automate these well-defined processes to improve their efficiency, quality and reliability.

Management creates organizational roles with detailed descriptions, detailed goals and detailed performance measurements (see the description of RACI for an explanation of this thinking).  Techies build tools to carefully constrain people to these detailed roles to improve efficiency, quality and reliability.

Management has money.  Techies want some of that money.  So they build the tools to help management get what they really want: a completely automated organization of computers, machines and robots.

The culture of technology is to solve problems with individuals and interactions by introducing processes and tools.  The culture of technology is (almost) inherently anti-Agile.

Ford Assembly Line 1913

The culture of technology is to solve problems with individuals and interactions by introducing processes and tools.  The culture of technology is (almost) inherently anti-Agile.


 

BMW Assembly Line

Individuals and Interactions

Let’s look at the first part of this value in a bit more depth.  When we think about work, most of us work with other people.  We bring our unique skills, personality and interests to work, and we work with other people who also bring unique skills, personality and interests.  In a high-bureaucracy, high-technology work environment, it is easy to forget about all this uniqueness and instead objectify people.  When people sense they are being objectified, mostly they feel bad about it.  We want to be acknowledged as thinking, feeling, unique beings with agency.  Objectification, no matter the source or the rationale, is depressing and de-humanizing.  The Agile Manifesto implicitly recognizes this concept and asks us who follow the Manifesto to try to shift our value-focus.

There are many aspects to this concept of humanizing work.  Some things that come to mind immediately include recognizing and encouraging people’s capacity for:

  • creativity and innovation
  • learning and problem-solving
  • caring about others
  • pride in work
  • complementarity with others
  • responsibility

Photo of diverse children teamwork

Processes and Tools

This side of the value is also interesting.  Processes and tools do not have agency.  They do not improve on their own.  Instead, processes and tools only either remain the same or degrade.  Processes and tools are forces for stasis: they encourage maintenance of the status quo.  Only humans introduce new processes and tools.

Technologists live in a philosophical double-standard: we build processes and tools for others to use and which we frequently would not like used on ourselves.  (We will discuss the cases where me might both build and benefit from processes and tools in a bit.)  This is one of the challenges of the type of work we do in technology, but it also applies to many other types of work.  So how do we solve this conundrum?  I would assert that the principles of the Agile Manifesto and the various Agile methods and techniques are all answers to this question.  They show us possible ways to implement this value (and the others) without getting stuck in processes and tools.

Only humans introduce new processes and tools.


 

What are Processes Good For, What are Tools Good For?

Some processes are good.  Some amount of process is good.  How do we determine what is good?  Well, it largely depends on context.  Some examples:

If a close family member is living in a distant location then the advances in communication tools are extremely helpful: the telegraph, the telephone, the cell phone, email, Skype.  These tools create connections where otherwise there would be little or none.

If a great deal of data is created while running a marketing campaign and needs to be stored and manipulated, then computers are amazing tools for this.  Computers are much much better than human minds and manual record-keeping for this sort of work.

If you create a fantastic new soup, from scratch, for some special occasion and you want to remember how to make and even share how to make it with others, then you document the process in a recipe.

Photo of Pho Soup

Context, Emphasis and Crisis

Context here is important.  The value of Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools is basically a statement that given the right circumstances we can use processes and tools, but that our default approach to work and problem-solving should be to focus on individuals and their interactions.  Depending on the state of your work environment this is easier or harder.

For example, a startup company founded by three long-time friends who have not yet employed anyone else is almost certainly going to solve most problems that come up through discussion amongst founders and through the development of their skills and capabilities.  As a company gets larger, however, there is pressure to adopt more and more processes and tools.  This pressure comes from a deep source: lack of trust.  At about 12 people, you reach the limit of the number of people you can have and still have anyone do anything (this limit is referred to obliquely in “The Wisdom of Teams” by Katzenbach and Smith).  After 12 people, it becomes harder to avoid role specialization and some basic forms of processes and tools.  In other words, bureaucracy starts growing as the organization grows.  Even at this size, however, it is still relatively easy to have a very strong emphasis on individuals and interactions.  There is another important limit: somewhere around 150 to 200 people, any hope of 100% mutual trust among the members of the organization is lost.  This is the point at which processes and tools “naturally” start to truly take over.  (This transition can happen even in much smaller organizations if the culture does not emphasize trust-based interactions.)

In small trust-based organizations, crisis is usually addressed by the mechanisms of mutual respect, skill development, informal agreements, and strengthening the interactions between people.  In a large organization with low trust, crisis is almost always addressed by the creation of new bureaucracy: sign-offs, audits, traceability, procedures, policies, processes and tools.

The true test of the an organization’s commitment to the first value of the Agile Manifesto is, therefore, how it responds to crisis.  When someone makes a mistake, can we help them develop the skill and the support networks to avoid the mistake in the future?  Or do we put in place even more restrictive constraints on what that person does and how they do it?

In a large organization with low trust, crisis is almost always addressed by the creation of new bureaucracy.


 

Beyond IT and High-Tech

For now, all that needs to be said is that this particular value of the Agile Manifesto does not in any way directly refer to software or software development.  As such, it is pretty easy to see how it could be applied in many other types of work.  However, there are some types of work where processes and tools really do take precedence over individuals and interactions.  If we want to apply the concepts of Agile universally (or near-universally), we have to examine some of these exceptions.  I will leave that for a future essay.

In the next few articles, I will continue to look in-depth at each of the values of the Agile Manifesto.  If you missed the first essay in this series, please check it out here: The Agile Manifesto – Essay 1: Value and Values.


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