The Heart of Agile – with Alistair Cockburn

When a speaker opens with some light-hearted banter that gets approving laughs from the audience you relax, you know it’s going to be OK.
When the presenter is a “Utahn” of Scottish descent and gets his laughs from a French audience, in fluent French, you know something special is happening on the stage.
Interestingly, as the only Brit in the room and clearly the only non-French speaker, I found myself transported from ‘distinguished guest formally presented by the organiser to Alistair’, to ‘bloke in the front row who didn’t get any of the jokes’!
Thankfully, Alistair’s presentation was in English: with a light Nordo-Utahn accent, spoken with a sauce of the accent of Provence. He’s a very natural presenter, and famously doesn’t present from slides, yet his talk has clear structure, and purpose.
He’s concerned with practices that are “effective” rather than dogmatically “agile” and of course I’m delighted because “effective” is exactly the term I use when doing Agile Scrum Assessments. It doesn’t matter what methodology you follow, as long as what you do is effective.

Agile is getting-on for 25 years old

When you are famous for being a founding member of something as significant as the Agile Manifesto, it might be tempting to turn that connection into your profession, just as world leaders do when they leave office. Not Alistair. He delivered a highly-polished summary of that now famous event. ‘It was the best meeting I’ve ever attended (because we listened to each other); it was 15 years ago and we were talking about what we’d all been doing over the last 5-10 years, so it’s 25 years old for me’. On the subject of SAFe (the Scaled Agile Framework popularised by Dean Leffingwell), he’s not sure if Agile can scale to large organisations, but sees “nothing obviously wrong with it”.
Cockburn is still very fond of Shu, Ha, Ri and he presents it like the professional he is. He’s good with stories and metaphors and manages to weave the imagery of a Sushi master explaining how to prepare fish: “you must feel where the fish wants to separate and allow the knife to help it come apart”, with his own attempts to learn Tango- dancing: “No Alistair, you are stepping sideways, your foot must slide from the inside of the leg”. It’s endearing, hilarious and very effective. We all have clear images of Shu, Ha and Ri to take away.
Shu, Ha, Ri leads to the next topic, the heart of Agile, via the Japanese symbol for heart, Kokoro.

Time for Agilists to move-on

He’s been working on a re-working of the basics of Agile, the heart of Agile. Talking about it is his way of developing and refining his ideas. I encouraged the top team of a start-up to present their pitch over and over as a way of discovering their purpose. They reported that it worked for them, so it was fascinating for me to watch a master of the technique practising it.
“Skills are interesting” he says, lifting a yellow sticky note from a board. “They keep coming-up and I’m not sure the framework really covers them, but I don’t want to add another word”. He sticks the note in a cluster of notes that he’s squirreled away for later consideration. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these yet” he says, as much to himself as to the audience.

The Heart of Agile “thing”

Cockburn’s Heart of Agile is (currently) just four words: Collaborate, Deliver, Reflect and Improve. There’s a love heart in the middle, and he talks about the importance of love in the workplace in a way few are able to do.
He wants this to be self-evident, just four words, four activities. Not a framework, or a method, just Collaborate, Deliver, Reflect and Improve. And why not? It’s compatible with Deming’s cycle of plan, do check, act, as well as Scrum and the Scrum values. (My words, not Alistair’s. I don’t recall him using the word ‘Scrum’.)

The Future of Agile

Alistair made an interesting reference to the way psychotherapy techniques are starting to appear in corporate transformations. Positive reinforcement, where there’s no analysis of what’s going wrong, just forward-focus, positive change rang a bell for me. It’s a departure from the usual ‘here’s what you are doing wrong, and here’s my plan to fix it…’ approach, and a timely tip too. I started practising it immediately!

Photographs of the event and other’s comments about the talk can be found here. Thanks to Patrick Sarfati of Soft Method, the organiser of the French Scrum User Group for inviting Alistair Cockburn and making all the arrangements. It takes a lot to present an event of this caliber and this User Group has prospered under Patrick’s care.

If you get the chance to attend a course or talk with Alistair Cockburn then I encourage you to do so. Like all masters, he makes it seem ridiculously easy. Now, who was it that said “it takes a lot of effort to look this casual”?

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