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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Einstein's Sailboat: 3 Ways To Speed Learning for Agile Newbies

Albert Einstein turns out to have been both an awesomely brilliant physicist and an enthusiastic but comically bad sailor.  Apparently, he spent whole summers amusing his neighbors by capsizing frequently and needing to be fished out of the water.  You would think that he could be calculating wind directions and consequences in some small corner of his vast brain, while also solving World Peace, but you would be wrong.  Not sure about the World Peace thing, but he definitely couldn't sail.

From a post by "Angel" on http://www.boatdesign.net/forums/sailboats/einsteins-sailboat-tinef-40050.html.  Watermark suggests image wasn't obtained legally by Angel, but what a cool photo!
Einstein's difficulties have several points of relevance to you, if you are a person charged with helping people develop software in an agile way.  It's not just a parable--it's a valuable set of lessons learned!  Here's how to plunge forward in your agile training program with more speed and less splashing.

Speed Teaching Tip 1:  Brilliant High-Level Generalizations Are Not Your Friend When You're Trying To Learn To Do Something In Particular With Multiple Tricky Steps.  Some would-be agile trainers like to sweep their arms expansively and say "everything you need to know is in the Agile Manifesto!"  Or maybe they will agree to throw in the Agile Principles too.  In fact, I challenge you to find an "Agile for Beginners" deck that doesn't start with a little meditation on the Manifesto.  Yet how helpful is that? 

Did the Agile Founding Fathers write up the Manifesto first, and then derive their various methodologies from it?  No, they did not.  They tried a bunch of stuff, kept track of what worked and what didn't, wrote books, staked their intellectual property claims to some different specific methodologies like DSDM and Scrum, and then eventually agreed that the Manifesto captured some common things across those specific methodologies. 

Why, then, do we insist on teaching agile as though it can be derived from the principles instead of vice versa?  We get pointlessly tied into knots that way.  Let's not do that any more.  When working with beginners, you can skip those Manifesto slides.  I give you permission.  Which leads us to:

Speed Teaching Tip 2:  Maps, Checklists, and Procedure Descriptions Really Are Your Friend.  Airplane pilots reliably maneuver their crafts all over the world with far more reliability and far fewer accidents than the average American motorist, and let's just say we're glad Einstein didn't fly us to our most recent conference speaking gig.  How do the pilots do it? 

They use checklists to keep track of the details.  Yes, they have experience, knowledge of the principles of aerodynamics, and muscle memory, and no, they wouldn't be able to depend solely on checklists when conducting an emergency landing on the Hudson.  But they can focus on the things that take human execution because they have written down the detailed things they need to remember, and they make it a routine to consult those lists.

Would it be so bad to create a standard set of checklists for our software development teams?  How about if we stipulate that people can tailor the lists to their needs, and that the lists will change over time?  Complicated things lend themselves to being presented in a predictable order.  Which brings me to:

Speed Teaching Tip 3:  Just Use a Timeline.  When people learn, they need to attach the new information to old information in their brains.  Everyone's brain is going to do associations differently, but you have a fighting chance of attaching at least some information to everyone's brain if you organize your thoughts in chronological order.  Almost everyone you will ever present with a deck can relate to "beginning, middle, and end."  Organizing your agile presentation "topically" the way you think about it will drastically cut down on how much other people can actually absorb from you.  What unifies "Pair Programming, Sustainable Pace, and Evolutionary Design?"  Only you know.

There is something unbearably cute about the idea of Albert Einstein capsizing sailboats around the world in his free time.  But if large scale agile transformation is something you do for actual pay, I recommend stowing the brilliance and hauling out some dry procedural documentation, at least when working with beginners.