Learning Agile Is Like Learning to Drive

Like driving a car, learning Agile must also take place in stages, with each level building upon the next.

By Dawn Stowers, Principal Advisor, SPC

Learning Agile and more specifically, Scrum, which is often the go-to framework when people talk about Agile, is like learning to drive a car. When we learn something new, we must first learn the basics, practice them until they become second nature, and only then can we strive for mastery. Like driving a car, learning Agile must also take place in stages, with each level building upon the next. Agile practitioners—managers and leaders included— need to take the time to master the basics and understand how Agile and Scrum work before beginning to customize Agile or Scrum practices.

Getting Started

If I think back to when I first learned to drive a car, I had to learn the rules of the road by studying a booklet and demonstrating I had a basic understanding of the rules and concepts before I could even get in the car (the learner’s permit). Then, once in the car, my instructor went over the rules and equipment with me. He instructed me to keep my hands on the wheel at “10 and 2”, referring to the positions on a clock. He wanted me to stay focused on the road ahead and minimize distractions, for example the radio stayed off. And then we went for short drives on very quiet safe streets to start. Since I was just learning, I would have to think very deliberately before executing certain tasks and he was there also with reminders such as check mirrors before backing up, look left, right, left before turning, and check the blind spot before changing lanes. It was all new to me and I was initially nervous and uncomfortable, but slowly, with practice, I gained confidence. Soon, I was ready to go driving on my own (obtained the driver’s license!)

Cruising Along

Now, many years later, I am an experienced driver. I still check my mirrors before backing up; I look left, right, left before turning. And I check the blind spot before changing lanes. But now, I do so without even thinking about it. I have repeated the action enough times that I do not need to actively think about every step—it is just happening. Now, while I am driving, I listen to the radio and adjust the controls. I may drive a bit faster than the speed limit. My hand positions on the steering wheel are not always at 10 and 2. I have, for good or bad, adopted the way I drive to fit me and what works for me. And I accomplish my goal of getting to where I want to go without accidents.

Road Hazards Ahead

But what happens when something happens while I am driving? Maybe it’s snowy and dark, and I am on an unfamiliar road. What happens then? I revert to what I was taught. My hands go back to the 10 and 2 positions, I turn off the radio so I can concentrate, and I slow down because I don’t know what is going to happen next. If I am in bad traffic, I am very conscious of checking my mirrors and blind spots before changing lanes. Sometimes, I feel like that teenager that is just learning to drive again. But there is also comfort in going back to these basics that helps me get through the difficult driving scenarios calmly and safely.

Learn the Agile Principles and Best Practices

When it comes to learning about Agile, we start with teaching the Agile Manifesto and the twelve supporting principles. This gives a good foundation but doesn’t give us specifics of how to navigate the principles in our real-world teams. So, we then look at Scrum which has a playbook for development teams (the Scrum Guide). Scrum is a framework that consists of roles, events, and artifacts bound together with rules to help guide teams to better deliver their products or systems. And if you are sitting in a class, your instructors will try to impress upon you the details of the framework and how to apply them in your day-to-day business context. You and your team may even get the chance after class to work with a coach who can guide you through the best practices for the Scrum ceremonies. Soon, your Scrum team will be conducting ceremonies on their own, essentially driving solo with your Scrum practices.

Make It Your Own, but Remember the Basics

And once you have gone through the basics of setting up Scrum within your teams, you will certainly “customize” some of the ceremonies and artifacts. This is your own version of driving one handed, tuning the radio and going faster down the highway. And you may enjoy the ride. But if things get stormy, and they will from time to time, remember to go back to what you learned and remember your principles. For example, a Scrum team had stopped meeting its sprint goals shortly after they stopped having daily standup meetings. During their retrospective, they identified the lack of daily face-to-face communication as one of the root causes of not meeting their goals. And so, they brought back the daily standup ceremony to facilitate team communication and ensure the team was aligning on common goals. 

When it comes to Agile, it is essential to learn the basics and practice them every day. Just like getting a driver’s license, you need to know the rules of the road and follow them. Building muscle memory with Agile practices is an important part of the journey. To build agility, it is best to start with a learner’s permit. Familiarize yourself with Agile principles and keep learning and practicing until you become comfortable with them. It is only then you can customize practices for your organization that will help you go faster.

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