Five Smooth Stones
Made from old wires and glass bulbs. With almost nothing, Edison made the impossible happen! –Oz, The Great and Powerful
Ever since a little shepherd boy knelt down to pull five smooth stones from a quiet brook to strike down a loud and defiant giant, the small but efficient approach to life has had tremendous value. In fact, now as we move from the Goliath factories of the assembly line Industrial Age, and into the rapid currents of change in the technology-driven Information Age, small is the new big.
Today’s organizations need employees, leaders, and strategies that are lean and agile to maintain a significant competitive advantage in today’s rapidly evolving workplace.
A small software firm in Denver, CO, Providigm LLC, has been employing the agile approach to their daily workflow with great results. Matthew Emge, the Quality Assurance Lead is a central figure in the wildly successful agile collaboration exercised daily at Providigm. The long and lanky tech guru, in his blue jeans and black t-shirt, looks like he just stepped off a college campus rather than serve as double-decade tech vet. “Agile manages stress,” Emge says, and it’s helping him and his colleagues excel through the small but efficient approach to their projects.
“I like agile because it’s a great way of adapting to constant change, minimizing rework, encouraging communication and giving value to every member of the team,” he reflects.
Each morning Emge and his colleagues participate in a scrum. In rugby football, a scrum refers to the manner of restarting the game after a minor infraction. The scrums at Providigm are short meetings with the Development Team to circle up around the project. During the scrum, the team gathers with the Product Owner (who represents the client’s interests) for an open meeting that lasts five to ten minutes. Each member of the team becomes a short storyteller, describing what they did the previous day, what they plan for the current day, and what potential obstacles or roadblocks are in the way of a productive day. After the meeting, the group collaborates on shared tasks, evaluates where they are at in the learning process, clarifies any uncertainty around shared goals, and resolves any outstanding conflicts.
The day-to-day work at Providigm is part of a short work cycle called an iteration. Ideally, iterations last two to four weeks.
“We begin with a planning meeting to assign tasks,” Emge describes. “We complete the work, and when it’s finished, we hold a demo to show the product owner what we’ve done.”
In the demo meeting the agile team documents any requested changes, which are included in the planning meeting for the next iteration. Shortly after the planning meeting the development team meets for a retrospective meeting where each member of the team tells what worked or didn’t work. Under the guidance of a manager, the team collectively commits to making the small adjustments needed for improvement and efficacy in the next Iteration.
But agile collaboration is not only about working in small iterations; it’s about collaborative communication every step of the way through the project. Rather than isolating teams in cubicles or offices, only to come together for long and often boring information dump meetings, where people pound their chest like proud Philistines, the agile team at Providigm works in the bullpen—a close quarters setting where anyone can be called upon at any moment.
“We talk to each other and collaborate throughout the day. But we keep documentation to a minimum because we know false assumptions can easily creep in if we overthink things. The manager and product owner are always close by if we need to speak face-to-face in order to make quick decisions for moving forward.”
The Agile Difference
To appreciate the benefits of agile collaboration you have to understand how software used to be developed. In the past, there would be months of planning, long tiresome meetings, mountains of project documentation, more months of seemingly endless coding. Finally, at the end of the lengthy development cycle, the product would take more months to be tested and approved for release.
“Back in those days,” Emge recalls, “We worked with a great deal of assumptions. While we were scrupulous in addressing those assumptions, inevitably there were too many assumptions to address all at onc. And we would often be wrong. When the product was released, we’d have to revise months of work just to get back on course. It was like trying to turn the Titanic, and if we were too slow for the market, we’d have to scrap the project and start over with something new.”
The Cutting Edge
To understand the agile approach, imagine you are making a pocketknife for a client. With the old development methods, business analysts would talk to the consumer and draw up lengthy plans for a smart knife with a camera, wi-fi connection, gps, apps, and cheese grater for that special moment. After the documentation and meeting marathons, developers would dig in and code the knife to the analysts’ specifications. Upon release, consumers would try it out and say most of the features were useless and got in the way—but the cheese grater would be nice if they actually made dinner at home. What’s more, the blade was too dull to cut anything.
In agile development, the process would start by releasing a knife with one single blade. The agile team would see how consumers are using it and not using it, make adjustments, and then add another essential feature.
“Before continuing, we listen to our users and make changes to meet their needs. We proceed one step at a time with constant consumer review,” Emge summarizes.
That’s how agile works—sharp as a well-made Swiss blade–with small but efficient steps that lead to an amazingly effective and refreshing approach to producing goods and services. Who knows, perhaps it’s even simple enough for a little shepherd boy facing a giant.
Jason Diamond Arnold is a Leadership Consultant and CoAuthor of Situational Self Leadership in Action, a virtual leadership program for individual contributors in the workplace.
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