Indiana Gorilla and the Artifacts of Agile

“Okay and Eric, you were working on the shopping cart ordering story, right?”
Eric nodded, but remained silent.
“And tomorrow you should be done and moving on to the Wish List story, right?”
He nodded again, still silent. He was a good engineer, never spoke unless he really had something to say.
“Any impediments?”
Eric looked around the table at the other seated engineers. None of them met his gaze, intent on their own computers. Then he shrugged and turned back to me. “No.”
“Ah, excellent!” I gave a thumbs up sign to the assembled team. “Great stand up, guys, I’ll see you all again tomorrow.”
I happily began entering data into my uber status report spreadsheet and didn’t notice the engineers talking quietly amongst themselves as they filed out.
I was cheerfully humming away five minutes later, when Hogarth wandered in. I looked up and pointed at my uber sheet projecting on the wall screen. “Man, this Scrum stuff is great! I love the daily standups. Just great to have everyone giving daily reports on their status. Can you imagine? A year ago I had to hound them for their slide decks every week and I almost never got a full report.”
Hogarth cast a glance at the screen, before he flopped down near the window. Reaching out the window he pulled a branch from the tree outside. After a careful examination of the branch, he used it to point at the screen. “Pretty picture, but you know its completely wrong, right?”
“What!?” I turned to stare at him. “What on earth are you talking about? The project is going great! Look at that burndown! I just cross referenced it with my detailed MS Project file and we are at least a week ahead of schedule. We’re doing AWESOME!”
Hogarth shook his head. “Nope, all an illusion. Take Eric for example, he’s got a massive database integration issue that’s going to end up making all of his stories crash and burn. He’s stumped on how to solve the problem and it is going to cascade into a total failure of the storefront in about two sprints.”
I blinked. “What on earth are you talking about? Eric just walked out of here and he didn’t say word one about any issues.”
Hogarth nodded, pealing a long strip of bark from the tree branch. “Course he didn’t, no point saying anything if you’re not going to listen to him.”
“What?” I said incredulously. “We just had our stand up! I was sitting right here! I didn’t set up all these Agile meetings just to have things be the same as before!”
“Just because you have the magical artifact, doesn’t mean you have a clue how to use it.”
“What?” I hated it when Hogarth spoke in riddles.
Hogarth rolled his eyes. “You remember in the original Indiana Jones, the Germans had the Ark of the Covenant?”
I stared at Hogarth, “I don’t have time for movie quizzes, Hogarth.” He gave me a “humor me” look and I sighed in surrender. “Yes, I remember. It ended pretty badly for them.”
Hogarth nodded. “Ayup, they had the artifact. But they didn’t know how to use it. If you put a MacDonald’s fry cook in the Iron Chef kitchen, he’s not magically going to become a great chef. The tools don’t make the chef, the chef does.”
I stared at him for a long minute.
“Ah, crap…”
Agile Artifacts vs. Agile Values: Holding Daily Standups, planning work in two week iterations, and tracking progress on a burn down chart are all excellent tools for the Agile team. They are not  Agile. Agile is a set of values and principles. It’s more about the how of team and not the what of the product.
You can’t take a handful of engineers, start having them meet once a day, and declare yourself Agile. Like Hogarth’s examples from above, having a tool (A Daily Standup is a Tool/Artifact) and knowing how to use it are two entirely different things. And the more advanced that tool, the more knowledge you need to use it.
Back in college I got a part time job at a little coffee shop/deli (Back before Starbucks took over the world). The owner was a quiet Turkish man who wouldn’t let me touch the espresso machine until after I’d learned not only the history of coffee but the why’s of exactly how the machine worked (this was an old manual style machine, no automatic buttons or anything). I must have frothed gallons of milk before he let me pour a single ounce into a customer’s cup. He told me, “To make good coffee, one must first understand coffee.”
Success in Agile requires a look beyond the tangible of meetings, code drops, requirements documents and into the heart of how the organization runs. The values and principles are as much, if not more about the team and not the product trying to be made. Make a better team and you make a better product.
Throw around a bunch of Agile Artifacts, like a five year old using a Ginsu Steak knife set, and you just replace one bad process with another.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

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