Ignore “Values & Principles”, Focus on Virtues

Agile and Lean brought wonderful things to the world of software development. But I sometimes cringe when I see enumerations of “agile values” or “lean principles”. Every time they are different, and every time they make no sense to me.

The Agile Manifesto mentions trust in its twelve principles. But Mary and Tom Poppendieck have a special place for respect among their seven principles of lean software development. There is no mention of trust in the lean principles, and there is no mention of respect in the agile principles. Why the difference? I’m quite certain that trust and respect are not synonyms. I trust my dictionary. But I don’t respect it.

Unfortunately, the confusion doesn’t stop there… Kent Beck’s short list of five values of Extreme Programming contains communication, simplicity, feedback, courage, and respect. (Note that trust is not among them!) But Ken Schwaber’s list of five values of Scrum has replaced three of those with commitment, focus, and openness. What are the agile gurus trying to accomplish here? Should we now discuss which values are better than other values? Or should we just merge them all into one big list and get it over with?

When you dig a bit deeper into this topic you will soon figure out that trust, respect, courage, commitment, focus, and openness are all examples of human virtues. They are personality traits that we value as being good. But there are more! In fact, there’s a whole legion of them, including appreciation, assertiveness, benevolence, caution, chastity, cleanliness, cooperativeness, curiosity, determination, encouragement, excellence, fairness, fitness, flexibility, generosity, honesty, honor, humor, integrity, loyalty, nonviolence, patience, resilience, respectfulness, responsibility, restraint, self-discipline, sincerity, skill, sympathy, truthfulness, wisdom, and many more.

Trust-vagawi-3155400274 Does Agile place “trust” on a higher level than the other virtues? Is “respect” singled out in Lean because it is the mother of everything? Does Scrum have a better list than XP because the communication, simplicity and feedback mentioned by XP are actions and qualities, rather than human virtues? Are other virtues, like excellence, flexibility, honesty, humor, responsibility, self-discipline, and skill somehow less important in agile and lean?

I think four times no. The gurus probably never really bothered to look into this topic. They could have picked some other set of five virtues, like excellence, honesty, responsibility, self-discipline, and humor (I would definitely leave out chastity), and it wouldn’t have made a difference for agile and lean adoption around the world. Or would it? I have repeatedly claimed that technical excellence and self-discipline are wrongfully assumed by agile, and rarely made explicit. But I digress…

Researchers found that creativity is a product of knowledge, motivation, and personality. In any project team, knowledge can only lead to innovation when people’s personalities and motivations are properly addressed. That is one of the main reasons virtues are important. They are part of people’s personalities, and they have big consequences for other people’s motivations.

Choosing either trust or respect, or some other limited set of virtues, is a too simplistic approach to address personalities and motivations. The world is more complex than that. Software projects benefit from some virtues being shared by all team members. But creativity also benefits when there is a healthy dose of diversity of personalities (and virtues) in the team. And what a good thing that is! Agile recognizes that we’re all human. We’re not saints, nor robots. We cannot be virtuous in every dimension. (Nonviolence is the one I struggle most with, when there are government officials around.)

Don’t be fooled by arbitrary sets of values or principles. As a manager, depending on the context, you should pick your own set of human virtues to focus on in your teams organization. Just remember that agile values are not a fixed set of twelve, seven, or five items. But you probably know me by now. My blog is about complexity, not about simple answers.

Note: I changed "organization" to "teams" as I believe the virtues should be selected with the teams, and agreed upon by the teams. (And they can also differ per team)…

(pictures by babasteve and vagawi)

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