Wabi-Sabi and Agile Development

Richard Powell, in his book “Wabi-Sabi Simple”, discusses how the ideas of wabi-sabi can be used today to make our lives better in various way, including our work lives. Powell’s sayings on creativity are equally valid to presentation design:

“The influence of wabi sabi on creativity begins with a simple premise: Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. In bonsai and in haiku, you prune and trim what is nonessential in an attempt to shorten the distance between the observer and the observed. You carefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure….Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention.”

This is harder than it sounds — people frequently confuse the concepts of complicated and complex (Glouberman and Zimmerman). Instead of trying to clarify the complex (by using pictures, stories, anectodes, graphs, etc.) they try to simplify it and, in the process, often lose the inherent nuances and interdynamics. They oversimplify and their end product/explanation barely does justice to the original complex system. This same problem exists in the realm of Agile coaching and transformation. Companies often start an Agile transformation effort based on a simplified explanation and then are usually surprised when things don’t pan out.

Complicated problems contain subsets of simple problems but are not merely reducible to them. Their complicated nature is often related not only to the scale of a problem like open heart surgery, but also to issues of coordination or specialised expertise. Complicated problems, although their solutions are generalizable, are not simply an assembly of simple components.

Complex problems can encompass both complicated and simple subsidiary problems, but are not reducible to either, as they too have special requirements, including an understanding of unique local conditions. Historical adaptive, self-organisational social networks with observable patterns that are neither predictable nor generalizable, yet can open up numerous possibilities.

Software development is a complex endeavor that involves the interaction of numerous interdependent variables and consequent trade-offs amongst skills, techniques, people, tools, processes, competition, regulation, quality, standards, and so on and so forth. Cherry picking from some of these variables and attempting to explain Agile development in those terms without tying everything together is not only foolhardy but also dangerous. Companies unaware of the complexities happily proceed to create a tailored version that they think will work in their organization — witness the explosion of “Create-Your-Own” Agile methodologies (nearly every company that I have consulted at has had it’s own take on Agile development; needless to say the methodology implementations usually are not the most effective).

The two problems of “Cargo-Cults” and “Create-Your-Own” ultimately lead to the poor track record of organizational Agile transformations. Is it then surprising that these companies get disillusioned by the whole Agile movement and go back to doing more of the same.Instead of over-simplifying, coaches should instead provide explanations to understand, present their reasoning, and help the audience find things out by questioning. Open-ended questions allow for a rich interaction between the coach and the team and permit investigation of topics and their interrelationships in depth. Questions also uncover implicit assumptions and nuances that may have been lost in the over-simplification.