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Why I was drawn to Agile: Impermanence and Boundaries

When I first learned Scrum, I was grumpy. As a traditional project manager, it went against everything I’d ever learned and practiced. So off I went, with my grumpy cat self, and over some time finally made the personal transition to applying agile practices until I ended up at a point where I can confidently say that Agile is more than work – it has changed my life. I wanted to write this blog because the reasons why have lately found their way stumbling about in the forefront of my brain, and I thought it might be interesting to share how an approach toward/values-based way of working has ended up shaping an otherwise ordinary existence. 

I just returned home from a rather long trip to Kyiv and Stockholm.  Prior to this trip, for about two months, I had been struggling with a couple of big life ideas; namely, perseverating over whether or not to go full-time as an employee for a company for which I’d been contracting, and navigating the dating waters. While I won’t go into details about either (especially the second!), the existence of these two (yes, trite, in the overall life scheme of things) dilemmas resulted in the discovery of some answers, and also digging a little deeper into why I finally settled on those answers.

One of my first aha! moments about Scrum/Agile and later Lean thinking was all about boundaries. Why? Well, I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, and I think at the very basic level, it stems from childhood (as do most important life realizations). I grew up with a narcissistic parent, and if you can relate, first of all, I'm sorry, and secondly, you understand the necessity and gravity of boundaries. I grew up and lived most of my adult life without the courage to enact my boundaries, which lead to some pretty hard life lessons. Scrum came along in my life when I was at the ripe old age of 28 and gave me a reason – no, a mandate – that forced me to enact boundaries at the right time, at the right level, with the right people*. A clever Boundaries Guidebook, it helped me enact those rules with a goal of protecting my team, people who also couldn’t say No, perhaps for similar or their own unique reasons. I have no idea. But Scrum allowed us to recognize courage by forcing us to display it – kind of a software framework fake-it-till-you-make-it theater. This feeling of protecting my team – and myself – from the knowledge worker safety issues of overwork, stress, anxiety, unrealistic deadlines, low morale, etc., was my first clue into the power of boundaries and their effect on a complex or chaotic system.  It also was an early insight into how I could strengthen myself as a person. Over the years I became fascinated with Ralph Stacey’s work. Later Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model. Christopher Avery’s Responsibility Process. And others. It all began to make sense – how  a framework could impact and influence personal boundaries, which could them impact and influence outcomes. It still hits me sometimes, 15 years later, as such an amazing concept: boundaries shape change. And people make boundaries, at least in the work world. Therefore, by association, people shape change by experimenting and adapting boundaries. Boundaries are as unique as the people who imagine them, and infinitely adaptable. Without them, we flail about. Without them, we have no stake. Without them, we continue the drudgery, day in day out. Without them, we cannot create an equal and opposite effect, the outcome of which we cannot always be certain. In the agile world of “continuous improvement,” boundaries should be viewed as impermanent and in flux, as are the realities and states they create. However, too many boundaries creates inertia. More on that in the next blog, but maybe you've seen the team that starts with Scrum, morphs into Kanban, swings back to Scrumban, and then - over time - doesn't really care what it calls itself, just keeps optimizing the choices about boundaries to best suit the need. This confidence takes time to achieve, and most don't realize that this ability to morph and change the outcome by changing the rules is even a possibility - in work, and in life. 

Impermanence, a concept I’ve most recently borrowed from Buddhism, is affected by and is also an outcome of boundaries. It is, simply, the state of being impermanent. The rippling waves are regular and rhythmic until they crash along a bank, an iceberg, or a storm. Then they ripple in another direction, and another, losing force, or gaining it, until the water turns to chop. The boat staying afloat must now put up a sail, change the rudder angle, recalibrate the location, because navigation just became more complex. Navigation is subject to many variables, and like boundaries, we don’t always know the consequence of our actions. But the consequence of navigation itself is impermanent, that is, the ship's crew must always navigate. You see, with agile (I’ll focus on work here for a moment), at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly ( That is, every so often the team meets to figure out the next impermanent state. By taking on a set of new action items every sprint, based on learning from the past, the team creates a new reality. Sometimes that reality works for them, other times, they realize they created a parallel zombie universe that’s not at all what they wanted. But the great thing is that the wonderful reality and the parallel zombie universe states are totally under the team’s control and within their control to change/influence again. The stuff that works – keep doing it until it no longer does! The stuff that doesn’t work – take another action (that acts as a boundary!) to influence another iteration of reality. By this simple idea, the team creates the best iterative, incremental reality to meet their needs (yes, I’m including the customer as part of the team). Impermanence is hard to accept; many are destroyed by the idea. I know I was at first when I learned Scrum; my anxious brain needed to know exactly what was going to happen, and when, and by whom. Months and years in advance. Until I realized that’s a rather silly and naïve way to go about life. 

This personal trial and error with boundaries in the workplace has created a stronger person who is no longer afraid to experiment with them in her personal life. It has also strengthened the mettle of a person who is quite alone in this world and not always so confident. I learned that there are some things I can more readily “control” and that many (most) things I cannot. I am learning to accept the impermanence of the day-to-day in order to experiment with tomorrow. I know that if I’m happy or sad today, tomorrow will likely bring a new reality, and I often have influence over that reality. It somewhat eases the guilt of the past and the anxiety about the future, making today more meaningful than either looking back or forward. By no means perfect, I’m an iterative, incremental life in progress. Refactoring abounds. Prioritization is a daily effort. Boundaries create a momentary equilibrium around which we may inspect and adapt before leaping off into tomorrow’s impermanent abyss.

*I take issue with the industry coaching backlash against a directive leadership style. Without the simple boundaries of Scrum, I’m not sure that our organization in 2003 would have changed all that much. I’m not sure that I personally would have changed at all if my manager hadn’t strongly asked that we try Scrum by momentarily suspending our disbelief to give it a chance. He gave us a vision, and he gave us a choice. As a leader, he asked for direction and for us to create a new reality, using a vehicle called Scrum to get there. 

With that said, I am an outspoken critic of Push Agile. Two very different animals.

And.. if you've made it this far, thank you...  I've decided to remain independent. And dating, well, it's iterative and incremental for sure. That's definitely another topic for another day. :) 








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