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Stop Telling me to ‘Be Agile.’

“Don’t do agile, be agile.”


Over my 10+ years in the agile community, I have heard this phrase a lot. I don’t have any idea who said it first. And, for a long time, I didn’t really think about what it meant. If I didn’t pay too much attention, it made sense to me. I heard it as a condemnation of those who hoped to use agile practices as an organizational performance enhancing drug; a sort of steroids for the bottom-line. Now, as I look closer at the phrase, and at the current state of Agile Coaching, it gives me pause.


When I think back to when I first heard the phrase, I can’t quite remember how I would describe the idea of “being agile.” What did it mean to me? What does it mean to me now? What exactly does being mean anyway? And how can I tell when I am being agile?


Let’s try on a metaphor to see if it brings more clarity. Let’s say I want to master aikido. I go to my first day of class and am told “don’t do aikido, be aikido.” That is a very inspirational message! I may think Yes! This is exactly what I want! It is a message that strikes a chord in many who are starting their journey of mastery. It speaks to our desire to transform ourselves. To grow and change into something new, something better than our current selves. I don’t have to be plain old Tim anymore! I can be aikido!


I leave the dojo full of excitement. Throughout the week I read books about aikido, I watch hours of videos, I join online forums and meetup groups about aikido. I am in! I am on my way to being aikido.


When I show up to the dojo next weekend, I am greeted by my teacher. I am eager to share all I have discovered this week and practice with a skilled master. I begin by asking what are we going to be doing in class today? My teacher, frowning, reminds me: Don’t do aikido, be aikido.


Ah, right! I had forgotten already. You can imagine this process going on and on. Yet, even though I am eager, I still don’t know how to defend myself! In fact, at this point, I don’t even know what it means to be aikido. I don’t know anything!


Let’s bring our focus back to agile.


It’s quite easy to simply tell someone to “be agile.” Problems arise, however, when it comes time to define what we mean by “be agile” and nearly impossible to explain how that happens. There are many articles that purport to teach me how to “be agile.” When I read them, however, they are almost always a collection of things to do.


I think that is because, while we toss off this phrase with ease, it is actually a very tricky topic. To start, how do we even define the word being? I don’t have answers to that question. The question of being has been tugging on us humans for as long as we could name the concept. Let’s check in with someone who spent much more time than either of us thinking about being.


If one tries to think the notion of pure Being (the most abstract category of all), one finds that it is simply emptiness—i.e., Nothing. Yet Nothing is.


- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German Philosopher


Even in this short quote, there is so much to think about here. It gives an appreciation for how abstract the concept is (the most!) and the complexity that comes with trying to define it. Our being is simply emptiness. It is nothing. Not only is it complex in itself, it is defined by other concepts that are equally as elusive. This elusive explanation of being is not unique. We can step back a few additional centuries and get a similarly complex explanation of the concept. Let’s hear from thirteenth century theologian Meister Eckhart:


The being (of things) is God.


Well, stakes don’t get that much higher than that. And, I believe it reinforced what I am getting at with this article. No one can teach you how to be. The way you are in the world, your being, is a construction only you can architect. Change at this level is not something that happens in a workshop, as much as I would like to believe it could. Others can offer you practices, distinctions, and theories of other ways to be, yet these don’t truly touch into your being. It is at once completely hidden and completely exposed. It is untouchable and everything we present. We do not find our being through force of willpower, we find it by giving things away.


Right now, we are in the throws of a culture with a self-improvement obsession. My LinkedIn feed is filled with posts from ‘thought leaders’ sharing their newest certification, promotion, or their next speaking engagement. Instagram shows me ‘influencers’ who are somehow enjoying a private island getaway and have brought along their six pack abs as company. It can seem that everyone is a hyper-achiever while I am just trying to get myself out of bed to endure another day of pandemic.


Don’t get me wrong, I am not against growth and change. In fact, I think it is essential. But, I think there is a difference between self-improvement and self-development. Looking at these LinkedIn and Instagram posts can bring on a feeling of deficiency. I think Steve March does a fantastic job of putting the self-improvement versus self-development distinction into words:


When we feel deficient in some fundamental way, we believe that something necessary is missing in us, in our bodies, in our relationships, in our careers, in our homes, and/or in our lives. Naturally, this tends to stir us into some kind of self-improvement project. Often, we go looking elsewhere to find what is missing. Transmutation works in a different way. Instead of looking elsewhere, Transmutation starts exactly where we are with exactly what we already have. Practicing Transmutation shifts us from self-improvement into self-unfolding. As we work with what is already here and we drop into a deeper and deeper contact with ourselves, we make new discoveries about who and what we already are.


- Steven A. March, Founder of Alethia


What Steve names as self-unfolding in this quote, I will call self-development for the purposes of this article. Self-development requires an acknowledgement of the current state: what is. I believe that self-development is difficult because it puts us in a paradox. When we can acknowledge the situation as it is, without an intention to change it, a softening often occurs within us. This softening is what makes change possible. When we start with this acknowledgement, we make space for change to happen. When we don’t, those we are working with dig in their heels and resist any change agenda. You may have already had this experience. Think back to a time when you were driving on the highway. You may have found yourself driving along and suddenly, someone is right on your bumper. Maybe they are flashing their lights and honking their horn. At that moment, how likely are you to change lanes and let them pass? If you are anything like me, not very likely! In fact, I may even slow down a bit to show this jerk who’s in charge! Now, you may be a more developed person than me, but you probably get my point. Forcing a change agenda on someone, without any consideration for their current state, prevents change. And, make no mistake, telling someone to be agile is a change agenda.


The pace of change for us as humans is not instant, not rapid, not agile. It is a deeper process that requires a change in the way we think, the way we see the world, and the action we take. Changing our being demands the courage to let go of your structures, of knowing what to do, of yourself. This depth of change is not something that can be taught in the same way we teach a new theory or a different way to practice our work. It is certainly not something that can be catalyzed by merely telling someone to change. As mentioned above, telling someone to be different will most likely get in the way of their ability to change.


Consider this before you offer the advice “don’t do agile, be agile.” Instead, take a moment to examine your own judgements. What are you really asking of them? If you can be clear for yourself, and teach your teams and clients the principles and practices needed, change becomes possible. If we keep telling coaches and scrum masters to be agile, without teaching how to do or think agile, we are creating a cult, not a different way to work. This is what I see happening in the Agile community. The Cult of Agile is real, and it is incredibly off-putting to those not currently enrolled.


As a small step in this change, I propose we retire this worn out phrase. It isn’t helping us get to where we are trying to go as a community. To move forward with our own development as coaches, as for those just starting on their Agile Coaching journey, we must uncover paths to change that are more realistic than telling others to be different.


Deep change is necessary for us to step fully into this new way of working. And though it cannot be taught, it can be learned. This requires us, as teachers and coaches, to step into a paradox. In order to provide spaces that invite others into a new way of being, we must deemphasize our focus on a new way of being. Instead, if we can create robust programs focused on developing the practices (doing) and knowledge (thinking) of agile, while keeping our attention as designers to the necessity of a shift in being, we stand a chance of helping others stepping fully into a new way of being agile.


If you are interested in this path of development, or would like to register for a developmental program that is based on these ideas, check out TBDAgile's current classes and programs. There you can learn more about how this approach is used to help develop coaching, facilitation, and leadership skills in the agile community.


Dialogue is important to us. Whether you think this article makes total sense or you disagree completely, reach out to us. We’d like to talk with you. To keep this agile community growing and developing in a healthy and innovative way, we need to disagree. The important thing is that we keep coming back to the conversation.



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