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Today I ‘attended’ a virtual conference from the discomfort of Conference Room 43 at my office (not, unfortunately from the comfort of my couch). The plenary was atrocious (seriously) but the session I viewed at the end of the day was really very good. My intent is not to plug the conference or the session leader’s company, so I will only say that the session was about an e-learning development company’s project management practices that are based on the agile model of software development. First, I have to say that the term ‘agile’ conjures up for me visions of cougars and jaguars—lean, lithe, fast and efficient—which is fairly accurate visual representation of what the agile process is supposed to be. It also made me think of my friend, Mike Rohde, who is in IT with a very large insurance firm, and who is a master sketch-noter. He recently designed a sticker for his company’s agile conference that I really like (photo to come if permission is obtained).


There is a lot of talk about agile these days, and to be honest for a while there I really got tired of hearing it. I had an incomplete idea of what agile is, and an even scantier understanding of how the concept translated to what I would consider more ‘everyday’ use (vs. IT-specific application). My understanding of the concept has grown considerably over the past year, and I’ve been trying to pick apart why I suddenly have an appreciation for the concept of agile and what it brings to so many disciplines outside the world of IT.


It definitely started in May of this year, when I and 49 other people from a mind-boggling hodgepodge of different backgrounds and work environments met in a reclaimed space in Bristol, UK, and where I saw firsthand how applying a software development practice to a live meeting could work. We didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the organizers talk—just fifteen minutes introduced the topic along with three questions to be answered, with 30 minutes to discuss in a general way in a round-table format, and 15 minutes to report on what we discussed in the small groups. Then another 15 minutes to revisit the initial topic with a directive to drill down a bit into the topic in a specific way, 30 minutes to discuss, and 15 minutes to report back to the larger group. [In the IT world, this would be considered a series of hacks and sprints, where a problem is posed (or a new project to be developed is presented) and the various development teams get to work on solving it, reporting back to the larger group (and sometimes the client) and either describing their progress or sharing a partially completed product.]


Scattered around the (rather large) room were stations designed to encourage creative thought and reflection, and where various special short sessions took place. For example, at one of the lunch hours some street artists, for which Bristol is famous, came and talked to us about their counterculture. We had a writing corner with cozy places to sit, a stage for music, a place to record a serial podcast, and we even had a graffiti wall set up in two places in the room so we could express ourselves visually if we chose. There were no real planned breaks except for lunch and dinner, and people were encouraged to move around, get tea or coffee, sit apart from the main discussion area, go for a walk…You get the picture, I hope.


The idea behind all of this was to get people out of a typical conference mindset and get us talking—really talking—and sharing. We wrestled with definitions and sometimes had to agree to disagree about how we thought people and companies should function in the Social Age, but the outcome was amazing—a community sprang up. A community where everyone had a voice and where participants were encouraged to learn from one another as much as (or more than) we learned from the leaders. It was glorious. It was freeing. It was lean, lithe, fast and efficient. It was agile. Up close and personal, and agile.


After the conference I started reading about agile and starting thinking about how to apply alternative thought processes to problem solving in general. I went from rolling my eyes when I heard the word ‘agile’ to sitting on the edge of my seat, eager to hear more. Now that I get it--really get it--the concept appeals to me more and more. There is an honesty to agile, an authenticity if you will, that I appreciate. Having always been a person who works out loud, I value the idea that an entire project team can be sharers. That everyone can work out loud and learn from everyone else’s mistakes, help one another fix problems as a project progresses, and celebrate all the little victories along the way that only a few people would have known about in the old way of working.


Now I wonder: why can’t more of work life be this way? Why is it we hide what we do all day at our desks? Why don’t we share more? Are we so afraid someone will ‘steal’ our work that we refuse to see the value of a truly collaborative and open workplace? And very importantly, why don’t employers create spaces where people can talk comfortably and sit comfortably and work easily?


Before I learned to appreciate agile, I always felt that things needed to change in the average workplace, but couldn’t articulate why or how. Now I have a foundation on which to build arguments for a better work environment, where everyone has a voice, everyone has a place and a job to do, and where everyone helps everyone else become lean, lithe, fast and efficient.

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