The Agile Blind Spot

The biggest problem with agile methods is that they rely on people being smart and attentive. The "people over process" paradigm is great, until you find out that your team consists of two trolls, a parrot and a hairdresser, and a relatively bright project manager, who happens to be deaf, blind and mute. No amount of coaching will help such a team to magically self-organize and to deliver a successful product. I’d like to call this the agile "blind spot". Agile is great only when the team is great.

To solve this problem, I usually compare agile management with traffic management. Traffic management concerns itself with turning the biggest idiots into smart and attentive drivers. According to the International Road Accident Fatality Statistics, my country (The Netherlands) has the lowest per capita death rate in the world. — Though I admit that Malta has beaten us in the latest 2005 report, I would like to point out that our country has a population of around 16 million people, while Malta consists of only twenty people and two chickens on a rock in the sea. So there…

No less than four complementary approaches are used to achieve such a low death rate in our country. These same methods should be used by any agile manager who wants his teams to score the lowest possible fatality rates among their projects:

  1. Driver’s license: In our country, for the license to drive, you have to take half a thousand driving lessons and pay our government roughly the equivalence of a new car, to be able to drive one. Translation: Make sure that you teach and certify your team members. (You may also want to make them pay heavily –psychologically speaking– for the privilege of being allowed to participate in those cool and sexy agile projects. But that’s optional.)
  2. Traffic signs: We are the country with the most traffic signs in the world. There’s not a square meter left in our country that doesn’t have some white lines, traffic signs, traffic lights or other regulatory stuff on it. Yesterday, I had to chase some officials away to prevent them from planting two more traffic signs on my roof terrace. Nevertheless, this regulatory stuff seems to help somewhat. Translation: Make sure that your team members are steered in the right direction using smart tools, notifications, wiki-pages, posters, and other regulatory stuff.
  3. Traffic police: Yes, we all hate them. Me too. Particularly when they take me off the road to check if I had been drinking, even though I don’t drink alcohol because I cannot stand it. But, given the number of idiots on the road, it appears it is necessary. Translation: Make sure there is a process manager walking around, who is sampling the activities performed in your projects to see if proper procedures are being followed. And if not, sue the bastards.
  4. Car horn: This is my favorite part of my car. Letting other people know that they are endangering either you or someone else is essential in keeping the number of fatalities down to a minimum. Translation: Make sure your team members have the guts to tell each other how to improve their daily work. Or else give them a claxon.

Smart and attentive people don’t need a driver’s license, or traffic signs. They don’t need to be taken off the road by the police, and nobody needs to point out their errors using a car horn. They simply do their jobs very well. And that’s what most agile methods simply assume. It is their blind spot.

Open any agile book and chances are you won’t find anything on education, certification, smart tools, process managers or claxons. But the world isn’t perfect, and neither are some of your employees. So keep in mind the blind spot, and drive safely.

  • Traditional Risk Management Doesn't Work
  • Arthur C. Clarke (or HAL vs. IBM)
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