­­The Fast Track to Agility

Mitch Malloy
Mitch Malloy

If you’ve been in Agile for a while, you’re probably familiar with “The Backwards Bicycle”, and if you aren’t, I’d encourage you to watch it. I guarantee it will be time well spent. However, as much as I value this video, I believe it’s missing something and has misconstrued a concept. As an Agile Coach and Consultant, I’m more sensitive to some things that others may not notice.

As an Agile Coach, I can see where people can have a tendency to learn the wrong thing. For example:

“We tried to be Agile but it didn’t work for us. I guess this is an environment where Agile won’t work.”

But as I probe a little bit, I discover more and can ask questions that help them understand.

“Why didn’t it work? What happened?” Then I discover something like:

“Our deployment processes are too complex, and we can’t deliver software to production every Sprint. Maybe someday we’ll have the infrastructure to be Agile.”

So wth this information, I might ask: “Do you think there are aspects of Agility you could benefit from without having to upgrade your infrastructure?”

This might cause them to pause momentarily, look at me with a “I’m not sure. Are you just trying to sell me something or can you actually help me?” If they decide they can trust me with a little more information and are confident enough to be vulnerable, a conversation opens, and I can usually find ways to help.

There’s saying among counselors and coaches that you can only take people as far as they are willing to go, but I believe great coaches can help people want to go further. I’m not saying that I’m a great coach, but it is what I aspire to be. And I’m stubborn enough to continue to strive for improvement so I can better help the people I serve, finding resources that are sometimes off the beaten path. One of those resources is a book written for ministry leaders but very applicable to the Agile community: R.A.R.E. Leadership. I won’t go into all the practical nuggets I found in that book, but one key point discussed neuropsychology and how our brains work, which brings us back to the Backward Bicycle.

The “The Backwards Bicycle” video rightly emphasizes that Knowledge doesn’t equal Understanding. How many programmers go to a class to learn a new technology and without practice, the knowledge ebbs away and Understanding never grows. And here is where I differ ever so slightly from the key learning of the video…

Understanding is key. It answers the question “Why?” and as Agilists we seek understanding because understanding helps us know how to respond. It takes time and effort to understand. It’s a necessary step to mastery, but mastery requires tenacious intentionality. The repetitive training of our brains creates a change in us where we no longer have to think about how to take that next step so that walking becomes both natural and easy. It becomes a part of us. As RARE Leadership and Backwards Bicycle teach us, our brains get rewired. The thought pattern moves from the slow track of the brain to the fast track. In short, it becomes a habit of thought.

But things can cause us to go back to old thinking habits. Stressors and environmental factors can lead us to motivate with fear even though we know joy creates greater productivity and it fosters courageous teams. R.A.R.E. Leaders need to lead themselves first and a major part of that is rewiring our own brain. We need to take captive each thought until we change the way we habitually think.

Rather than wondering in great frustration why people are falling back into old habits, we understand that they are simply doing what people do naturally, going back to a pattern they learned in the past. So we need to remind them who they are: they are Agilists and as an Agilist, how should they view and respond to the situation?

The Bicycle video gets most of it right. Knowledge is not Understanding, but it equivocates Understanding with a Habit of Thought. As a consultant, I’m sensitive to the use of words, looking for terms that are overloaded (multiple meanings) or terms that have been redefined. I don’t believe the video intentionally redefined the term understanding. Rather, it came across a concept for which mainstream society has no word. In certain religious circles, they use the word “soul” to describe this habit of thinking. It’s the essence of who we are, our way of perceiving without even consciously understanding how we know. In other circles it may be referred to “intuition”, which is often infuriating in a pragmatic business world that wants an immediate answer to “how do you know this?”. In other environments, we refer to this as thought patterns or muscle memory.

Regardless of what we call it, this is a step beyond Understanding. It’s the Fast Track of the brain, a habit of thinking, a hard wiring of the brain that indicates mastery has occurred. So the fast track to Agility in individuals and organizations starts with Knowledge, leading to Understanding, and only with repetition results in some degree of Ba , where we, the knowledge and the experience are one.

Knowledge is not Understanding, and Understanding is a step on the path to mastery.

copyright ©2019 Mitchell Malloy