Fun and Agile


I figure that if we are to take agile back we should not let pass remarks that destroy the spirit of agile and we must reinforce what agile stands for.

So this is a kind of extended off-topic reply to a discussion in the linked in group about agile where I felt that a core tenet of agile was offended.

This is of course, my opinions on the subject, both on how to handle take agile back as on the subject at hand.

The issue

In the discussion about how to teach agile there were some people suggesting the use of games, in response it was stated by someone that:

  1. Agile is not fun;

  2. Agile is not a escape for the lazy or ones that don’t want to work hard to learn and upgrade their skills;

  3. Agile causes burnout;

  4. No pain, no gain.

The affirmation (2), I think is the worst off all, because it shows that you mistrust people by default. It is carrots and sticks all over it, it’s a gross misunderstanding on human motivation and that humans strive for mastery and achievement and it is precisely this distrustful culture that puts people on the defensive and utterly creates an environment of underachievement motivated by fear and conflict.

Human centred

A central characteristics of Agile, at least which I see as being core to Agile, is being Human centred and organic, contrary to more traditional methodologies that try to force human beings into forms, agile tries to understand humans and build around them in order to maximise the positive qualities and to smooth out defects.

Instead of destroying human beings by trying to make them into machine pieces and fit an arbitrary median norm, ending up with barely functional pieces, performing at the average minimum, Agile builds upon people and maximises contribution of each participant in the process, leveraging each individual’s qualities and protecting the whole from defects.

In order to archive that goal it is necessary to understand the human being which can only be done by understanding of human physiology, psychology and sociology. As with agile we are always in the feedback loop learning and improving, a good amount of empathy.

No carrots please

The first thing to understand is that we are not motivated by rewards.

It is an established knowledge that intrinsic motivation is much better than extrinsic motivation, there are experiments that show that if a person likes something and is paid to do it, she will like it less afterwards, for we associate the act of doing with the reward being the cause and not an intrinsic motive and the subject becomes less interesting.

Fear is the path to the dark side

When we are in fear or stressed, the reptilian brain takes over and shuts down the creative problem solving part of the brain, we enter a fight or run mode where route response and pre-programmed behaviour takes place.

Software development is intellectual work

This is an important point to realise, the least important part of programming is the actual writing of code, for that we have IDEs, where development bogs down is the design part when people are at lost on how to solve a problem, how to uncover a bug, or even worse when they are producing badly designed code that will “work” but later come back and haunt the team.

Intellectual work is very different from mechanical work for you don’t just drop it at the end of the day and restart the following day, where measurement of a task progress is merely the amount of stuff produced.

In intellectual work the task is ongoing 24 hours a day, our brain does not simply switch off from the task, it keeps processing unconsciously the problems and the creative process goes on and on.

The reason people have so many great ideas in the bath, when we bathe we are relaxed, running hot water is specially good at releasing hormones that causes relaxation, this engages the creative part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, ideas get finished and flow from the unconscious mind.

To maximise intellectual productivity one must keep the pre-frontal cortex engaged, this means being relaxed and avoiding extended period of stress.

Work around limitations

While command and control industrial age philosophies try to enforce policies and force people to follow an huge amount rules, Agile tries to remove the burden and set tools and mechanisms which would be the least intrusive, stressful or demanding, to let people do what they really excel at which is to think, have ideas, solve problems.

For example instead of using late code review which causes people to feel uncomfortable and judged, Agile uses pair programming which incorporates hot code review among other things. Instead of e-mail, planing tools, reports… A simple white board with histories.

The more you make people feel safe, comfortable, empowered, reduce bureaucracy noise, the more they will focus on actually working and produce stuff. If the process takes unto itself the role of compensating for the weakness, people can focus theirs energy on what actually matters.

To tire is an human weakness and thus it must be addressed by the methodology, if it is allowing people to burnout it is being done wrong. In fact there is a maxim for that: Work refreshed.

We advance when we rest

Affirmation (4) no pain no gain, is a often repeated catch phrase, when we workout we cause lesion to tissue but when we rest, during the deep sleep, tissue is repaired and the body “learns” by forming better structures, the same goes for mental learning, during light sleep our brain organise information and commit to long term memory.

We know today when we exercise up until just before the pain, recovery is much faster and gain over time is greater than going past to pain, besides, exercising until pain there is formation of micro scars, which over time cripple the tissue. The same goes for mental health, if you rest before stress you recover faster, learn more and prevent mental injury.

The correct phrase would be: No rest, no gain, pain and eventually death.

We evolved to play

Play is a fundamental need for human beings. We evolved to play, it is the natural way for our species and many others to learn, when we play we are at the proper mental state for learning. There is a beautiful TED Talk by Steve Keil on the subject in which he does an excellent job at advocating for play and fun to boost work.

By promoting play and games you promote the development of skills without suffering, boredom and stress.

Fun is serious business

How do you maximise brain work in an unobtrusive way? Fun of course. If you reconcile fun with work you will have more brain power and less burnout. Actually, in order to be Agile, there must be fun.

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