Being Agile Means Putting People First

When the concept of agile was first being established, a very simple set of statements was written to help define it. Of the 12 principles behind the agile manifesto, five are related to interacting with people.

Being agile means putting people first, and that includes our stakeholders, managers, coworkers, and ourselves. For me as a manager, I have a customer that my team is working for, but my employees are also my customers. In a similar manner, I am a customer of my employees, and we all need to keep each other in mind.

Several years ago, my team had made a series of small mistakes. These were relatively little things, like getting an inventory wrong, or failing to notice something in a facility, or messing up a software configuration. But when you added the half dozen or so small mistakes together, it meant that my team had produced nothing but failure for two weeks. We had been screwing up over and over again, and now my boss expected me to drop the hammer on my team.

I called them all into a conference room, and I could tell by the looks on their faces that they were expecting to be yelled at and called to task. Instead, in a calm voice, I identified the various mistakes that we had made, and then let there be a little bit of silence. And into the awkward silence, I then admitted to them that we don’t talk about religion much at work. We worked at a state university, and there was an expectation that we should keep our religious beliefs separate from our professional behavior. But for me, my religion helps me to see that, in the great, cosmological scheme of things — when compared with the vast expanse of eternity — these mistakes were inconsequential.

We need to learn from them. We needed to not repeat them. We needed to do better. But as long as we could all agree on those things, then we needn’t discuss the mistakes any further, because really they weren’t that big a deal.

I think that this meeting had a profound impact on my team. We seemed to bond a bit more, and the trust that I put in them was both rewarded and returned.

In order to make things better for my customers, I need to make things better for my team. And as a team, we can then discuss and identify ways that we can make things better for our customers. This is one of the keys to agile: we do things as a team.

If we start letting a plan take precedence over our team and our customers, we’re increasing our chance for failure. I know a lot of organizations that think the plan will ensure success, but without people to carry out the plan, it’s worthless. And if our plan isn’t taking into account the needs of the customers, then what we deliver will be equally worthless. We must also recognize that what people need changes over time, sometimes very quickly, and so we need to be engaged in continuous dialogue to ensure we understand what people need.

Balancing the needs of stakeholders, managers, employees, and everyone else will sometimes require compromise. But that compromise should be for the sake of prioritizing the needs and values of people, not the demands of an arbitrary plan, or set of due dates, or design decisions. If there is something we can change that will benefit people, we should.

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