Tag Archives: Philosophy

Agile or Not Agile?

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Every once in a while the del.icio.us tag for Agile turns up something really interesting. This evening, I found this article about the ongoing use of the term “Agile”. The article is brief and a little weak, but it brings up a concern that is always niggling in the back of my mind. Interestingly enough, a good friend of mine, Christian Gruber, emailed me another web page of similar import…

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Catastrophe, Crisis and Victory

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Today I came across Tobias Mayer’s article Catastrophic Organizational Change. Much as his thoughts on the topic resonate with me, I think there is something still missing.

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Agile, the Adult Educator and Ethical Considerations

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A review of Tara J. Fenwick’s “Limits of the Learning Organization: A Critical Look” (article found in Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education).

This article is a critique of learning organization literature (as presented in the works of Peters, Senge, Watkins, Marsick, Argyris, Schon and others). I chose to do a review of it because learning organization literature can and does inform the work of Agile practitioners. The writer, Tara Fenwick, offers a critique of this literature as an academic and practitioner in the field of adult education. Even though the language and tone of the article is judgmental and at times affronting to the corporate trainer audience, it is never-the-less challenging and valuable because she raises interesting ethical questions that can serve as cautions against potential trends that can distort agile practice. I will summarize her argument in the some of the areas most relevant to Agile practice.

Fenwick’s summary of the model of learning organization found in the literature, is an organization that: “creates continuous learning opportunities, promotes inquiry and dialog, encourages collaboration and team learning, establishes systems to capture and share learning, empowers people toward collective vision and connects the organization to its environment.”

The following is a summary list of some of Fenwick’s critiques:

Who’s Interests are Served
Although the learning organization literature holds great promise for a more humanitarian and egalitarian workplace, it has the potential to distort learning “into a tool for competitive advantage” and in turn, exploit people as resources in the pursuit of profit. To explore this idea she asks a valuable question: “Who’s interests are being served by the concept of learning organization, and what relations of power does it help to secure?” She argues that learning organization literature tends to serve the interests of educators working as trainers in organizations and managers interested in their own self preservation.

How Learning is Defined
Learning, in learning organization literature seems to be defined as that which benefits the organization, all other learning falls into the dysfunctional category. This perspective negates other ways that people create meaning and learn and potentially causes a person to become “alienated from their own meaning and block flourishing of this learning into something to benefit the community.”

Assumptions about Learners
The learning organization literature subordinates employees by seeing them as “undifferentiated learners-in-deficit”. Educators and managers are the architects of the learning organization while employees are busy “learning more, learning better and faster” trying to correct their knowledge deficit. In the learning organization workers become responsible for the health of the organization without the authority to determine alternative ways to reach that health. The fear of being left behind in a quickly changing market environment is used to create anxiety and fear as motivations for learning. All of these factors serve to put serious limits on the potential of people to learn in the work environment.

Diversity and Privilege Overlooked
Perspectives of race, class and gender -which research has shown affects the way people learn and collaborate- are lacking in the literature. Fenwick challenges the notion of achieving a democratically ideal situation for open dialog -that the learning organization literature calls for- when all people in the work place do not “have equal opportunity to participate, reflect, and refute one another” (for example because of the status of ones job, character, gender, class, age etc.)

Fenwick sheds a clear light on where the good philosophies of the learning organization are found wanting. The Agile community can benefit from asking some of the same ethical questions she asks in relation to our work. Her critique is a good challenge for Agile practitioners. It challenges us to:

  • Continue to strive for higher levels of ethical excellence in our work
  • To consider issues of power in our work
  • To become conscious of how we use our own power
  • To give thought to what voices are included / excluded in the creation of the learning organization
  • Pay attention to how we motivate learners
  • How to foster collaborative environments that are conscious of the privileging of some over others
  • Think about who decides what is valuable knowledge and learning and how that affects the knowledge creation process

Reflecting on these issues will go a long way to contributing to the development of agile practice.

The full text of an old version of Fenwick’s article can be found here.

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Agile Coach/Mentor Job Description (Process Facilitator)

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Given the Agile Axioms and Disciplines then an agile coach or mentor should have some really specific experience and capabilities. This list constitutes a first attempt at a job description.

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Tools Versus Capabilities Approach To Agile Training

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Which approach is most valuable in training that fosters collaborative work for the purpose of optimizing the performance of an organization: a tools / methodologies approach or an inner capabilities approach? The typical orientation that most organizations take is often external and rule-based. This consists of creating methodologies, rules, boundaries, systems and processes to enhance collaboration.

These external approaches ultimately fail to have a lasting effect on people and the culture of the organization because they don’t address change at the level of habits of mind. People then work in the new structure with the same patterns of behaviour. Behind this kind of surface approach to change are assumptions about human nature. At worst this consists of a belief that people are base (greedy, selfish etc.) by nature. At best that people are fundamentally good but cannot improve except through external measures. It is true that we need external systems and structures to give expression to our inner capabilities, to test, foster and develop them in action. However all the investment that companies make in tools, systems, methodologies are obviously not enough. We need both external and internal approaches to training people in collaborative processes. Systems and tools provide only a framework that then need to be filled in with character. At the core of Agile there are disciplines (such as Empower the Team, Amplifly Learning) without which the methodologies would have no life. The practice of the disciplines fostered by the development of inner capabilities infuses life into the Agile methods and at the same time the methods act on and reinforce the inner practice of the disciplines.

As Agile champions (coaches, facilitators, practitioners) we must invest energy on fostering -through modelling and coaching- the development of inner capabilities. The Agile community will benefit from an identification of core capabilities required and a deep exploration of how to foster their development in individuals, teams and organizations.

Although it is our nature to organize in groups and we may have much experience with collaboration, we nevertheless live in a culture of contest and individualism. Out of this culture comes a set of belief systems which are so deeply rooted in our lives that we are not fully conscious of them and their affect on us. These belief systems cannot change easily through the introduction of external structures alone.

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Personal Philosophy of Adult Education

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The following is my approach as an educator to my work in community and organizational development. I have come to this understanding mainly through experience, a great deal of mentoring and study.

Please note that when I use the term “teacher” in this document I also mean consultant, mentor, coach etc. The term “student” is also interchangeable with organization or community. The term education is interchangeable with organizational or community development consulting.

Validation: a starting point

Education should start from, affirm and validate the experience, insights and knowledge of the individual. This is a foundation for education that honours and respects the student. Recognizing the nobility of the student allows her an active role in her own learning. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning by drawing on the experience of the student, to build on that experience through the acquisition of new insights, knowledge and skills.

Learning must be self-directed. The teacher may have a number of wonderful things to teach, but if the student does not believe that they are relevant to her, she will not be engaged. This is especially true for teachers who are working in communities that they are not a part of. The teacher must engage in careful investigation in order to understand the situation of the student, which includes attentive listening, as well as a genuine interest in the needs of the student, before proceeding along any line of instruction. Taking her cue from the students, the teacher must work with the individual / group to create a learning environment in which everyone takes responsibility for their own learning. In this kind of environment the teacher is not an expert and does not do the students’ learning for her. The teacher can use questions to assist the student to understand, instead of delivering answers. The teacher should also encourage an environment of learning that recognizes mistakes as part of the learning process. The learning environment should create in the student a hunger for the acquisition of knowledge, insights and skills beyond the direct experience with the teacher.

Encouragement: the key to self-directed learning

Once the experience of the student has been validated and her needs established, education should be challenging but not obtrusive and challenges must be presented with respect and encouragement. Encouragement versus excessive criticism leads to individual initiative instead of paralysis. The natural result of an encouraging and challenging learning environment is self-discipline and self-correction instead of external discipline (control) and constant external correction.

A transformative, holistic approach centred in humility and service

The learning environment should foster humility in both the student and teacher. Most contemporary approaches to education are materialistic; the student pays, studies, receives a degree, becomes an “expert”, etc. The whole educational experience, from the teachers to administrators, cultivates in the student a sense of self is that is based solely on the expertise and knowledge gained. The “Expert” attitude in the community development environment is often not useful because the work in the field is so complex. Many stakeholders have keys to the process, as a result, the “expert” attitude devalues the knowledge of others and tends to taint the path to solutions with conflict and ego. Another consequence of the expert mentality in the community is dependency; people are divorced from the solution to problems that they all contribute to and to which they all hold the keys. Instead of drawing on the knowledge of the stakeholders, the expert renders her own knowledge most valuable which in turn causes them to discard volition and succumb to a state of perpetual dependency on one expert after the other. Community members or institutions are robbed of the ability to play a central role in their own lives as a direct result of being robbed of opportunities to play central roles in the decision-making process of their community.

With humility at the centre of all learning, the purpose of education becomes transformation. We learn so that we, our communities and our institutions can improve and change for the better. Also as learning is applied to community efforts, individual capacity unfolds and is developed. Learning for its own sake is valuable, but learning for positive social change, makes the acquisition of knowledge, skills and insights relevant and engaging in the face of community development challenges. Learning then becomes intimately connected with action and is corrected and refined through action. This infuses a powerful sense of purpose and meaning in the learning process, especially as successes are realized.

Principle-based approach facilitates ownership

Education should cultivate a sense of personal ownership in the learning process and community life. Fostering a sense of personal ownership comes with educating students to have a mature perspective about their own learning as well as the changes they desire to implement in the community. It involves helping students learn the capability of ‘becoming’ the change that they want to see, as well as finding positive starting points in desperate situations and building on them. A mature outlook demands that students have a principle-based approach to problem solving versus a rule-based approach. Education then becomes not only a process of acquiring knowledge but centred on capacity building for individuals, institutions and groups. Fostering the development of capacities needed to overcome obstacles also requires a principle-based approach, embodying principles such as perseverance, human rights and dignity, building unity in diversity etc.

Integration and balance of methods essential

Education should be methodical and balanced. It should aim to acknowledge, validate and employ different learning paradigms: those of science, spirituality, culture and the arts. Systems of education that value science above the arts or spirituality are destructive to the individual and community as they create an imbalanced view of the world and rob people of a diversity of perspectives and tools that they need to face complex challenges. An educational program should strive to address the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical needs of students and not focus too much on merely one dimension of life. This is especially important in communities that have experienced extreme marginalization (colonization, oppression) where healing and wellness must play a significant role in the learning process.

Modelling Change

A key ingredient to success in transformational education is the example of the educator. As people, naturally we do what we know and what we have experienced. In order to change our patterns of behavior we need to begin having fundamentally different experiences than what we have known. The educator must be able to assist in the creation of such experiences. To do this she must be capable of modelling what is being taught and through constant critical self-reflection strive to exemplify in every action empowering ideals.


Learning and education are indispensable to all community efforts for positive change. The job of an adult educator is to assist individuals, the community and its institutions to adopt a posture of learning. This begins with working with the experience of the student, fostering self-directed learning and follows as the teacher interacts with the student to challenge and assist her to new levels of learning. With humility at the centre of all learning efforts, dependency on “experts” can be replaced with volition and independent decision-making. The potential of the individual further unfolds as she applies her learning to service to the community. Attention to capacity building and cultivating a sense of personal ownership -in the process of learning and community building- deepens the experience and truly engages the student in taking an active role in the development of her life. Utilizing all systems of learning in the education process ensures balance of methods and helps cultivate the infinite and diverse capabilities of human potential. Ultimately the success of an educator rests on the degree to which she is able to model the change she is fostering.

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Harvard Business Review Article

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I highly recommend this article on Collaboration Rules. Great stuff in there about developing teams, developing organizations and how important communication and trust are to doing so. The article draws examples from and compares the open-source development and maintenance of the Linux kernal and the operation of the Toyota Production System.

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The Viable Systems Model

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Agile Work is a system that can be created inside many types of organizations and work environments. I recently came across an interesting article about the viability of systems. The article describes an interesting recursive breakdown of systems into sub-systems of specific types. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will use this model to try to analyze Agile Work to see if it is viable.

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The Transparent Society

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The Transparent Society, an essay by David Brin is an excellent statement about the possibilities and challenges that technology presents to us as a society. What is interesting about this paper is that it presents a possible society that is very similar to some of the goals in establishing an agile environment: open communication, accountability, free access to information and status, and close collaboration.

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Generalizing Specialists

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The term “generalizing specialists” has come to mean an individual who has a particular area of deep expertise but also has experience in a large number of other areas that may not be directly related to their core area. This type of person typically has strong talent in their specialty but also has a generally strong talent for learning new skills and ideas quickly. The origin of the term seems to be in the software industry referring to programmers who can do other software-development related tasks.

In self-organizing teams, a generalizing specialist is a more valuable team member than a pure specialist. The pure specialist often has an attitude that they should not need to do work outside their specialty. This can be destructive to the team’s morale. On the other hand, the generalizing specialist is willing and able to learn new skills – to stretch as the needs of the team change. And since change is natural, this is an essential attitude for team members.

However, we are usually trained, and strongly encouraged to have a deep specialty. This approach to education and training is a natural consequence to the typical organizational model for work and society. Therefore, if a team is converting to agile work methods, people need to be coached to stretch themselves and learn new things. For some people, particularly those who already have multiple hobbies outside work, this is an easy transition to make. For others, it is a very difficult transition. In some extreme cases, this may call for the removal of someone from the team. (Note: I have never seen this myself and I only mention it with great reservation. I strongly feel that only those who could be called “ill” will be so incapable of changing their way of working. For other recalcitrants, it is usually a matter of motivation.)

Other terms that are similar to “generalizing specialist” include “craftsperson”, “renaissance man”, and “polymath“.

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Just In Case You Haven’t Seen It Yet

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There is a fantastic article about software productivity: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/HighNotes.html. I love Joel’s writing style, and this article in particular has important lessons for us all, regardless of our profession: find what you can be the best at, and do that. Interestingly enough this is part of the message of the book Good to Great but applied to a whole corporation. It also applies in the context of self-organizing teams: each individual should be able to find/learn in what way they can best contribute and do that more than they do other stuff.

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Broadcast Mode Communication

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The book “The Mythical Man-Month“* discusses some of the reasons that larger teams are inefficient. The main concern is with the number of possible connections between team members. If you have two team members, there’s only one channel of communication. However, if you have n team members, then you have n(n-1)/2 channels… which grows quickly (order n^2) as n becomes larger. If one is required to work with a large team, say more than 10 to 12 people, it becomes imperative to find ways to improve communication efficiency.

One of the best ways to do this is to use broadcast mode communications. Information radiators are a simple broadcast mode tool. In a subtler way, having the team co-located** also takes advantage of broadcast mode communication: if everyone can overhear all the conversations that are going on in a room, then people can tune in when they hear something of relevance.

It is important to note that there are several other forms of broadcast communication that are useful in certain circumstances: e-mail, blogs with RSS or Atom feeds, analog radio, television (if you can think of others, please let me know in the comments). These tend to be more useful for very large communities. Radio and television have severe limits: they are not easily used in a communal fashion.

Some forms of communication may seem to be broadcast, but in fact are not. A simple web site is not because it requires that people poll it to see if it has been updated. Conference calls are marginally broadcast in that while they are occuring, everyone participating hears everyone else. However, a conference call requires active synchronized attention on the part of all the participants.

The subject of media and communication is a vast one. Some of the best writers include Marshall McLuhan and Gregory Bateson. However, there are many many more.

*Highly recommended!

**A search on dictionary.com for collocation indicates that three spellings are all correct: collocate, colocate, and co-locate, this latter spelling being the most common on the web.

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Book Review – “The Tipping Point”

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The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is a book that is about the way ideas, things and behaviors go from obscurity to ubiquity in a very short period. The basic model is that of an epidemic in which three types of factors contribute to quick dissemination: 1) the network of people involved including “connectors”, “mavens” or respected experts, and “salesmen”, 2) the ability of that which is spreading to stick around, the “stickiness factor”, and 3) the importance of small physical, mental and social factors, in creating a conducive environment. The Author, Malcolm Gladwell, includes some excerpts on his web site.

  • Introduction
  • One: The Three Rules of Epidemics
  • Two: The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen
  • Three: The Stickiness Factor: Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, and the Educational Virus
  • Four: The Power of Context (Part One): Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime
  • Five: The Power of Context (Part Two): The Magic Number One Hundred and Fifty
  • Six: Case Study: Rumors, Sneakers, and the Power of Translation
  • Seven: Case Study: Suicide, Smoking, and the Search for the Unsticky Cigarette
  • Eight: Conclusion: Focus, Test, and Believe
  • Afterword: Tipping Point Lessons from the Real World
  • Endnotes
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index


This is a fascinating book, well written. Some of the anecdotes and “case studies” are mind-blowing. However, there is a bit of weakness in parts. In particular, the Afterword and the sections on The Power of Context are weakly put together – ideas do not flow well, or are too stream-of-consciousness. As well, the weight of evidence, while strong, is not totally convincing. That said, there are a couple of really fabulous stories.

One story that stands out is the study related to the “Good Samaritan”. In brief, researchers set up an experiment to test what factors influenced a person’s behavior when presented with someone obviously in need of help. At a seminary, the researchers had students prepare and deliver a brief talk on some topic. One of the topics given randomly to some of the students was the story of the Good Samaritan. The students were to take a short amount of time to prepare their talk and then immediately go to another building to deliver it. Planted by the researchers along the path to the second building was an actor made up to appear in a great deal of physical distress. As each student was sent out the door, the researchers would breifly comment either that the student was running a little early, or that they were late and needed to hurry to deliver their talk. The results were astounding: of those students who were told that they were late 90% ignored the person in distress regardless of the topic of their presentation, while 63% those with a few minutes to spare stopped to help (pages 163-165).


There are several ways in which this book is relevent to those of us practicing Agile Work and related methods. Most obviously, the ideas in The Tipping Point suggest some lines of action we can take to promote Agile: finding the connectors, mavens and salespeople, working to make Agile sticky, and making the environment hospitible to the spread of Agile. This applies both inside organizations and in the world at large.

In my own opinion, the drafters of the Agile Software Manifesto, either by design or otherwise, came up with an incredibly sticky term: Agile.

Finally, when coaching a team to adopt agile practices, it may be most important to focus on the Power of Context. Small suggestions, small physical changes, body language, all can have a large influence on the success or failure of an agile adoption. If a coach (Scrummaster/Team Lead/etc.) can find the connectors, mavens and salespeople in the sphere of influence of the team, and convince those people of the efficacy of Agile, then convincing the team will become that much easier.

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