It Took a Few Kicks. How I Got Agile


I signed up pretty quickly to the idea of agile.

When someone first explained it to me my first reaction was massive relief. It meant I had permission to say “I don’t know.”

At the time I was working on creating technology products for higher education and we were very us vs them. ‘Us’ were the former publishers who were suddenly imagining digital experiences and ‘them’ were the development teams building them.

Our job was to have the idea, list out all the requirements and be able to answer any questions about the future behaviour of learners using the system. Questioning requirements felt like a test. A test that I was failing because (I convinced myself), I was an impostor.

I was expected to know how everything should work and how people would react, down to every click and interaction. There was always pressure to be sure and never change your mind or you’d get a reputation for being a “problem stakeholder” and be reminded of your own words with a gotcha.

What I loved about agile is the acknowledgement that we have hypotheses, but until we actually experiment and have some evidence, we can’t know for sure. Suddenly I could be honest about the limits of what I knew and work collaboratively with a team to figure it out. And instead of deciding up front what the whole thing would look like, we’d start with the most important thing and learn as we went along. Most importantly we’d figure it out as a team.

I signed up my team to be the first to try out the new “ways of working” in agile.

Surely I would be the embodiment of an innovative leader and embrace it all immediately? Well…not quite.

Whilst I was ready to immediately grab the parts that gave me more freedom, I was less comfortable with the part where we questioned everything.

See, I was highly invested in my vision.

And after taking about two years of politicking, arguing and pleading to get funds to build something I thought was absolutely critical to stave off massive disruption, my team was finally in place and I was ready to go.

To me, agile was about making sure we did it the right way but the “question all of your assumptions” ethos meant I had to ask whether we should be doing it at all.

I had a mission and I wasn’t ready for anyone to tell me to slow down.

We got through it because I had an experienced agile purist with me to administer a few necessary kicks at just the right times. In reality there wasn’t anything I disagreed with but I felt like my project was threatened and I reacted defensively. The more pieces of agile methodology we added to our process, the more I got it, eventually calling myself out when I made assumptions that weren’t supported.

What I learnt:

  • You can understand something intellectually and agree with it, but you see whether you really “get it” when you put it into practice

  • It’s nearly impossible to completely change your perspective unless you are nudged along - too much, too soon and you’ll resist

  • It helps to have a coach or trusted advisor to challenge you

- Not everything will work for you, especially as you start applying agile outside digital product development, but be sure you keep the core principles in mind or it’s just window dressing

Want to go or going agile? We’d love to talk.

Melissa Sabella