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Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Luke Szyrmer March 16, 2021 3123 1

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Of the four main claims in the agile manifesto, “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is the one which is the most violated and missed. Particularly by people keen on implementing agile processes by the book. It’s easy to start thinking immediately in terms of processes and workflows. It’s a trap. It’s just a habit. In most cases, managers create processes and workflows to compensate for a lack of trust among people in a team.

individuals and interactions
individuals and interactions matter more

When communication breaks down, each team member does their own thing. It’s just “heads down”. While this may increase the lines of code they produce, it’s unlikely to produce more useful and working software. Regardless of whether I’ve worked alone or in a team, quite often discussing a feature before I begin work on it, I get insights which I wouldn’t have gotten on my own. The additional perspectives are invaluable. This ranges from how it might look on the UI, to what the main purpose of a feature is, to how to implement the relevant data structure or algorithm. This type of exchange happens because of good team interactions.

Good vibrations

It’s really peculiar and hard to measure, but the feeling of interactions is still important. This “soft” part of software development, especially how it impacts effectiveness, is probably the most important part.

“Yes, And” in improv – Luke collaborating on stage

In improv comedy, there is a concept of “Yes, And”. When developing a scene, two improv actors enter the stage with absolutely nothing but their imagination. Once one of them starts, the other immediately responds to the “offer” of the first. That offer becomes “reality”, for the purposes of the skit.

This happens on the language level too. When coming up with dialogue, improv actors, dare i say comedians, always try to accept what the previous person said. Saying “No” or “Yes, but” kills the dynamic of a scene. It decelerates. Rapidly. This is the essence of collaboration. If the environment is such, that everyone can build on everyone else’s creative ideas, it accelerates the rate at which these ideas come about.

It’s not only about the “communication saturation” which scrum co-creator Jeff Sutherland has mentioned in the past, where there is a larger number of connections among project participants. In particular, on the infamous Borland Quattro Pro project, they delivered 1 million lines of code in 18 months, with a team of a few people. There were many more discussions with project managers and testers than you would have on a typical project. Team leads dialed in individuals and interactions, thus achieving an incredible outcome.

The quality of individuals and interactions

Here the focus is on the quality of the interaction. At each step forward, you advance it. You are moving rapidly forward. You discover what you are making as you make it. It requires full attention. It requires being plugged into what your teammates are doing, as you want to run with any offer they make.

If you thinking giving a presentation in public is hard, try making one up on the spot, with a few coworkers. While this might seem a bit wacky, it’s actually a highly refined set of skills practiced in the improv theater community. While the actors don’t know what any particular scene will be about before they start, each actor submerges himself into what everyone else is doing. As a result, they find ideal ripostes to every offer. The scene’s conflict is discovered organically. Tension builds. It culminates. And then the troupe completes the scene. Pure creativity comes from being completely plugged in to the situation. And from listening closely to other team members.

This improv meme has been on the fringe of the agile community for a while. I suspect its because there is a strong desire for focusing on individuals and interactions over processes and tools. People never seem to stop amazing me, especially the amount of creativity which others find in themselves. In a team setting, the culture in which a team operates allows for this type of free-flow of creative ideas. This assumes that everyone feels safe enough to offer ideas as they are created. That’s where this Agile principle of ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools’ puts you.

If you enjoyed this post…

You’ll also love my book Managing Remote Teams, which focuses on how to implement these insights in meetings and in your company culture when remote.

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