Agile vs. Zombies

Fast-paced decision making to get back home

Surely by now you’ve at least heard the term agile. Maybe you know what it means, maybe you don’t, maybe you kind of know. As it gains popularity and permeates new spaces, we can settle for having a basic understanding: that agile methodologies, and the mindset that they operate on, are essential for fast-paced environments that require quick decision making in high stakes contexts.

A good way to think about –and understand– agility is to imagine that you are living in a zombie movie: the fundamental rule for survival is that you have to keep moving.

Is it a bit extreme to compare change with zombies that do not think and are only interested in eating your brain? Possibly. But, first, that high-impact title draws attention, and second, it is also useful to understand that change, much like a zombie, does not think or feel a thing: change has nothing against you, nor does it take things personally. Change is, it exists, it happens. Also, like zombies, it does not ask for your permission, it does not wait for you to be put on comfortable shoes and get ready to escape , nor does it adhere to any of the hierarchies, ranks, and any other type of value scale that us humans invent to classify ourselves. Change happens, period. Just like a zombie wants to eat brains, period.

In this last year in particular, we all had the opportunity to learn that agile philosophy is not something esoteric and mysterious that only applies to startups and technology industries, but is in fact a critical tool to navigate our day to day in the near future.

That’s what this article is all about: learning how we can borrow tools from other areas and apply them to our daily work. We are going to travel to Italy, and we are going to talk about waves and sunk costs, but before all that, we will take a little detour through Utah.

The origins of the Agile Manifesto

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development met this world in February 2001, in Utah, among a group of 17 professionals who gathered in a cabin in the mountains because they felt they needed an alternative to the traditional processes and methodologies for developing software.

Since its inception, the agile manifesto was conceived with a very narrow and specific focus: it was about rethinking the way software development projects were carried out. In fact, all the terminology in the document comes from the realm of software.

The manifesto consists of twelve principles for software development, that are supported by four values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

There are several things that I find super interesting about this. The first is that the manifesto begins by saying that “we are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it”. Its signatories note that, through their work, they have reached these four values, and they clarify that, even when they recognize that, while there is value in the items on the right, they value the items on the left more.

This is already a valuable lesson in and of itself: first of all, they establish that they reached these conclusions through their work, doing and helping others to do. I don’t think that, since the April Theses, there was any other declaration of principles with this level of focus on the materiality of everyday work. Second, the Agile Manifesto is by no means a call to bury the past or to burn bridges, and it explicitly clarifies that: they recognize there is value in the foundations of the old model, but they see more value in the foundations of the new model. With regards to that point, indeed, not even the Leninist Theses are so radically conciliatory.

But the thing I find extremely interesting and truly revolutionary about this document is that, even though they made a point of being very explicit with the application limits of their proclamation (“this is valid for developing software”), that manifesto gave rise to a wave of change that stretches far beyond software.

The Agile Manifesto brought to our attention the fact that we have to rethink the way we were used to handling change and uncertainty, and it did so with a guiding, almost provocative question: things have changed, how will you respond?

Agile is, fundamentally, the capacity to adapt to change.

Where the wheel meets the asphalt

Although I had previously known about agility, the agile movement and other associated methodologies for several years, there is no more effective learning process than having to apply theory to practice.

I learned this lesson first-hand: in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, during the first days of March 2020, my girlfriend and I were stranded in Italy. We were traveling to the south of the country and, while on a bus, and in the middle of the night, we learned that the Italian government had declared the entire territory a “red zone” and promptly ordered a mandatory quarantine and the closure of the borders. Imagine what that situation was like: you’re on a bus, at midnight, on your way to a small medieval town with a population of less than 5,000 souls, and you suddenly learn that you won’t have anything to do when you get there the next morning, except trying to find a way back to Rome (which, even though all roads lead to it, is not as easy as it sounds when zombies are running at you).

That night, in early March of 2020, on a bus going from Rome to Sicily, was a moment of uncertainty. Italy was not the problem; it was only a small part of a much bigger problem. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic had started in China and, if it had reached Italy, we could safely assume that it was going to spread throughout Europe and very soon to the rest of the world. Several months later, we know that to be true. But, already at that time, under high levels of uncertainty in the environment, some things were very clear.

Even when uncertainty is very high, the certainty about uncertainty is sufficient to make decisions.

If there was ever a moment when you have to know how to think and act on your feet, this was it. In southern Italy, decisions had to be made, and they had to be made quickly: cancel reservations, cancel train and plane tickets, choose where to go, buy new tickets for that next destination, start thinking about what the destination could be after that one, because if Italy closed, very soon every other European country would. And while we were trying to figure out how to get out of Italy in the very short term, we had to mentally outline how we would return home in the short term.

Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

The agile way to make decisions

To kill all suspense, and to let you breathe, I’l tell you the end of the story: yes, we got home, safe and sound, a week later. And yes, you read that right: one week later. Seven days full of unknowns, vertigo and leaps into the void. In the course of that week, we had to make more than twelve absolutely decisive decisions, in an ocean of uncertainty and with almost no time to think. All kinds of decisions about where to go, on what means of transportation, what timetables we could and should take advantage of, where and how; where to stay, what rates were reasonable to pay, how much money we had and how to use it efficiently, among many other things.

In just one week, 7 flights were canceled, and we lost another 4; we bought 5 plane tickets, 6 train tickets and 2 bus tickets that were not in our plans, we lost 3 accommodations; we bought 3 lodgings that we had not budgeted for; we missed out on knowing and touring 3 cities, and we ended up getting to know an unexpected one. Zombies are starting to sound friendly, right?

Every decision we had to make, we made in a matter of minutes, based on fragments of information, and knowing that the situation was so volatile that that information could change in the next few minutes or hours. It would have been very easy (even comfortable) to assume a victim stance, and cry over the spilled milk. It was also tempting to think of all that we had lost, all the extra costs, the stress. But knowing what we know today, and with a lighter head, we understand that none of that would have made any sense. Even worse: it would have played us against. Back then, in the midst of the storm, something within us also knew that it was not convenient for us to remain mourning the losses, because they were sunk costs: things that we can no longer get back.

As the wave of the pandemic (and the bureaucratic and administrative chaos that it generated) grew in height, the crucial rule of thumb for survival in any zombie movie started to sound like a mantra: you gotta keep moving.

Surf

As a corollary of this adventure, we learned several things. We learned that change resembles zombies in some ways, and that both things behave like a wave: you can’t make it go away, you can’t ask it to wait for you, and you can’t change its course. The only thing you can do is accommodate yourself in such a way that you can use the momentum to your advantage to navigate towards your goal. Dealing with change, escaping zombies, and surfing a wave are, ultimately, a form of aikido.

We also learned that agility is much more than a manifesto; it is a mentality, a way of seeing the world and, above all, an enabling factor to make decisions with little or no information: travel light, do not take your eyes off the end goal, and decide ignoring sunk costs.

Under those circumstances, the agile mindset helped us to look ahead clearly: to focus, not on the past, on what has already been lost and disappeared, but on what is to come. The possibilities lay always ahead, in the future; and the past is always determined. Looking back, today I can tell you that every one of those decisions was the right one, because the only wrong thing was to not make any decisions, to remain at the mercy of the situation and let the waves rock the boat. As Winston Churchill said:

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

Where others would have gotten paralyzed by thinking about what was lost, seeing the world through an agile lens helped us keep our eyes looking ahead and move quickly. We dodged the zombies, adapted to changes and surfed the waves. A week later, with several hours of sleep overdue, we made it home safe and sound.

about Martin Pettinati:

I want you to communicate better. When I’m not communicating the amazing stuff that goes on at Manas.Tech, I write, talk, design and execute trainings on communication, marketing, presentations, public speaking, leading teams, and several other things, always within the field of communication, always focused on doing, and with the purpose of creating and sharing useful and applicable things.

I want you to communicate better. Marketing & Communications at Manas.Tech. I write, talk, design and execute trainings on communication, marketing, and stuff.