What is Agile, anyway? A short fable

“Your main goal for this quarter is Agile”, said Jane, the VP R&D during the performance review, “you do know what is Agile, right?”
Bob didn’t know what Agile is. That is, he knew what the word agile means, but not in the context of his job as a director of software development at Slough Comm, a maker of telecommunications equipment.
“Yes, of course. We will do Agile in 3 months”.
“No, don’t do Agile. Be… never mind. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Just talk to me whenever you need help, and let’s stay updated on this every two weeks in our status meeting”.

Bob wrote in his writing pad “Agile” alongside his other goals for the quarter, that included finishing an overdue project with a big client, and improving quality of software. The last two items were repeated every quarterly review, just with the client name and the quality measurement changing from time to time. This Agile thing was new. And his main goal, no less. He didn’t know why he said he knows what Agile is, and wished he didn’t let his embarrassment win over him during the meeting. It was too awkward to go back now and ask what the heck is Agile.

Immediately after the meeting Bob started asking his colleagues about it. Kevin, the director of hardware R&D said something about a maker of testing and analysis equipment, but that didn’t make any sense. He sneaked a question about Agile in conversation with his development managers in a staff meeting he held, but no one seemed to pick this up.
On his way home, later that week, one of the junior programmers entered the elevator with him. As they descended, Bob asked, “By the way, Tony, are you familiar with Agile?”

“Oh, sure I do. It’s the programmers’ nightmare. It’s a micro management, kill creativity management crap that’s been going on for some years now. A friend of mine is doing Agile in his company, and he suffers from it so much that he’s looking for a new job. I am lucky to work in a company that didn’t sign up for this”.

“Well, there is no way that this is what Jane means”, thought Bob, “micro management is the last thing I can say about her”. As they went out of the elevator Bob recalled Jane’s words: “Don’t do agile… never mind…”, but once in the car the thought escaped him.

That night Bob awoke, sweating, his heart racing, and thinking – he has made nil progress on Agile, and next week he’s supposed to give Jane an update on them doing Agile. Or not doing Agile, whatever that means. He got up, went to his computer and googled Agile. There was only one result – ‘Agile is the ability to manoeuvre with speed’. Why is Jane asking him to do something that has a single result in Google? And how does that have anything with their work at a Hi-Tech company?

After he calmed down, Bob picked up the phone and called his college friend in Johannesburg. “Is everything OK, Bob? It must be about 3am at your side. What’s up?”
“Nothing like that, Caroline. Just that my manager set me an impossible goal for the quarter, and I’m already one month late. And it bothers me so much that it keeps me from sleeping.”
“What is this mysterious goal, Bob?”
“Not mysterious. Just meaningless. It’s called Agile, and it’s something I’m supposed NOT to do”.
“Ahhh. I think I might have an idea. Why don’t you come over for a couple of days. I will help you figure it out.”

As the plane touched the ground, Bob kept telling himself, “I can’t believe I’m flying to South Africa to meet an old friend, when the ground is burning under my feet.” But it was too late for this now. Caroline welcomed Bob at the airport, and they drove off in her 4×4.
“Bob, I want you to meet someone. He is quite extraordinary person (if you can call him that), and you’ll have to be cautious when you meet him. But he can tell you what Agile is all about.”
They drove off the main road, and entered what looks like a Savanna. Bob didn’t know why all this seems normal to him. It was all so odd.

They stopped in the middle of nowhere. Caroline gestured with her hand and said, “He is waiting for you under the tree over there”, and then added, “his name his Alfred. And for a good reason. He’s the Alpha of his group, so take care”.
Next thing Bob found himself crouching next to a lion.
“I hear you want to ask me something”
A talking lion. WT…..?
“I want to know what Agile is”
“I am agile”
“I don’t follow. You mean my boss wants me to bring a lion to the office?”
“Oh, you humans. Everything is so simple for you. You search for the simplest path and call it a solution. Agile is the ability to manoeuvre quickly with speed.”
Bob recalled he heard this before, but couldn’t put a finger on what it was.

“You see the gazelle over there?”
Bob stretched his hand out and pointed, “The one over there? Yes I can….”. The gazelle ran off quickly and effortlessly.
“I asked if you could see it. Not if you can scare off my lunch, thank you very much. Anyways, did you see it run off? Just answer quietly please. I still want to eat today, and you want it to be one of the wild animals around.”
“Yes, it reacted immediately to my motion. And then it changed directions while it was running. It was beautiful”.
“I agree, although I find it more tasty than beautiful. And it was changing directions in case I was chasing it. To make my hunt more difficult. So I must be able to react and to manoeuvre very quickly too. Are you getting my point?”\
“I guess so. You mean that being agile helps you outrace the gazelle? And the gazelle being agile helps it outrun you? Oh, that agility helps you survive, that being fit helps you be more agile!”
“Yes, but shhhh, stay quiet. Agility is a quality, a characteristic. It’s not something you do. It’s something you are, are, are, are, are, …”

The lion’s voice turned into a monotonous sound, that was Bob’s wake up alarm. He was back in his bed, reorienting himself. He got up to his computer and googled “Agile” again. Unlike in his dream, Google immediately returned multiple results.

The Agile Manifesto was coloured purplish, indicating that it’s a link that Bob looked at before. He clicked it again, and navigated to the “Twelve Principles of Agile Software”. His eyes gazed over “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility”. He realised now that this is the piece that he missed before: enhancing agility as in becoming agile, not doing agile. That’s what he missed – to become agile, to understand what agile is, he will have to do far more than to reflect on a bizarre dream.

He then spent a few moments looking at “Working software is the primary measure of progress” and wondered: How come that the bigger we become, and the more experience we gain at Slough Comm, the slower and poorer we become at the pace of generating working software?
He recalled what the lion in his dream told him: “You search for the simplest path and call it a solution”. What if we stop searching for silver bullets? What if we go back to basics, and try to deliver less, but something that works?
He did another google search, and then he hit “less.works”.

He now knew what to tell Jane in their next meeting. He also knew he’s only scratching the surface of figuring out this agile thing. He felt excited, and a little bit scared in a kind of strange enjoyable way. He called in that he’s working from home today, and spend the rest of the day reading a few articles he found.

Want to know what happened with Bob and Slough Comm next?
If this was a MVP for a short story, would you like to read the final version?
Drop me a line in the comments or in a direct message to let me know.

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