The Abstract Virtues

It’s real easy to summarize Agile / Lean: Just do the right thing for the circumstances. That’s a little bit like a winning formula for tennis: just hit the ball in-bounds. Easy to say but not very helpful.

That said, let me set out a couple of grounding assumptions.

First, I take it as self-evident that people would rather have their work be meaningful, of high quality, and make a positive difference in the world. I’m sure there are exceptions — people who have lost the joy and passion in their work, or are only in it for the money, or are “workin’ for the weekend,” or are just trying to hang on until retirement.  But even those people, given the chance to choose, would choose to make a positive difference as long as they have to hang around 40 hours a week anyway. When managers ask what role is left for them in agile development teams, I would point to any difference between how people would choose to contribute versus what they do contribute as the place to focus.

Second, I’m assuming that you are engaged in an activity like software development, where discovery and driving out risk are essential parts of the process. Consider the difference between baking a cake you’ve made before, and driving to the supermarket to get the ingredients. The first process can be precisely planned with little variation; the latter requires that you keep your eyes on the road and make large and small adjustments, even if you’ve made that trip hundreds of times.

Third, as it says in the tagline of this blog, Agile / Lean is a journey, not a destination; a way of life, not a target to be checked off.

If you accept those assumptions, then the abstract virtues summarize what we’re trying to do to create high-performing teams executing an empirical process.

Empowerment is truly giving everyone in the organization the opportunity to contribute. Since we don’t know precisely what we’ll encounter along the way, we need all brains on deck, noticing opportunities and problems we didn’t anticipate, watching for risks we did anticipate, and coming up with creative solutions to issues we encounter. Further, that opportunity to make a difference provides the intrinsic motivation that studies show is essential to success in empirical processes.

Visibility provides the context for the empowered team to operate within.   It’s an old management precept that people will deliver against whatever you pay attention to, so make sure the things you care about are clear to see, then let those empowered people swarm on issues to deliver what you want.

Empowerment and Visibility are probably the biggest challenges managers face, as well as the place for managers to exercise their own creativity and make the biggest impact. The other abstract virtues are a bit more technical:

Eliminate Waste is borrowed from Lean, and we’ll have a lot to say about it. Everybody is in favor of eliminating waste — until their own job or favorite on-the-job activity is classified as waste! When that happens — and it always will, see Manage Change — it’s best to deal with it in the context of…

Optimize the Whole. Another Lean virtue, and is intentionally put last here: it’s very hard to do, for reasons that are technical, psychological, and political. Once again, the creativity of that empowered team, coupled with making the true costs and benefits visible, are the underlying requirements for success.


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