The clue in the coke bottle – the real miracle of Agile

For me, the real miracle of agile is staring us in the face every day, such that it tends to be overlooked sometimes when the essence of such things is being sought, discussed or even “measured”.

I see it every day when coaching or facilitating teams that have transformed themselves into high-performing teams, and I see it plastering and dominating the “Happy Face” section of the retrospective board every time, in the training room and the war rooms as organisations start to adopt agile.

Actually, come to think of it, I’ve seen it all through my career …

In my first year of work, back in 1985, I went on a “team building” course. There, on the banks of the lake, shivering in the early morning spring sunshine, standing two-to-three feet apart, was the usual motley assortment that random fate had decreed was to be considered “a team”, in name at least. Some were natural outdoor types. Others, muttering, looking uncomfortable out of their usual smart work clothes, were fearing any and all prospects of physical exertion. I myself was a reluctant attendee, in a sling, recovering from a broken collarbone. The assignment was to retrieve a clue from a Coke bottle on the island in the middle of the lake, and thereafter see where the trail of clues led us. We scouted around, found an array of items that we might be able to cobble together into some kind of a raft, and took it from there.

By the end of the day, even the most reluctant attendees were all muddied up. Some had skinned their knees or scratched up their arms. One colleague had volunteered for and completed a solo 5 mile run in search of one clue. My sling had long since been discarded – my physiotherapist had told me to start using my arm again anyway – gently at first – well, I’d started using it again, so I’d followed that part of her instructions. We were all huddled together in the bar, chattering wildly, slapping each other on the back.

What did we achieve? I honestly can’t remember. Something entirely made-up and meaningless, that’s for sure. But every last one of us had thrown our absolute all into the achieving of it and could be counted amongst the happiest folk on the planet as a direct result. Imagine for a moment that we had been given detailed plans of where to go, how to get there, detailed instructions of how to build a seaworthy raft, and precise expected timings for “achieving” each meaningless task along the way, which we would need to stick to if we were to achieve the meaningless whole withiin a day.

Frankly, we probably wouldn’t have bothered at all – we’d probably have gone back to bed, or straight to the bar. We certainly wouldn’t have thrown our all into it, and we certainly wouldn’t give two hoots whether we succeeded or failed. So, for me, the miracle is teamwork. There’s just something about pitching in with a bunch of other people to figure something out and achieve something by working together. There is simply nothing else more rewarding and fulfilling.

There is no rationality to it – the end goal can be as meaningless and unrewarding as you like. Not being a social scientist, I don’t know any of the theories about why it is so. It is certainly something deeply wired into human DNA and human happiness. Maybe it goes back to when cavemen collaborated to bring down a woolly mammoth. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the single most important invention of humankind ever: what enabled us to survive as “the naked ape”, when we would seem to have so little going for us as a physical species.

And it is such a virtuous-circle of a thing – a happy team is a motivated team is a committed team is a successful team is a happy team is the beating heart of the value-generation engine of your organisation.

And yet somehow it is hugely unrecognised and untapped as a force. What is the value, pure and simple, of NOT telling a team how to go about its business? It is recognised as a key concept in agility, of course, –  the “self-organising team” – but it is hard to define and measure in terms of both behaviour and value.

And what ever happened to those jolly old team-building courses – often seen as a pure luxury by management, certainly to be cut back on in these economically tough times?

What if, instead, we aim to turn every day at work into one big team-building exercise?…

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