Condemned to Repeat the Past?

It seems – at least to me – unlikely that I’d be moved to write a post by learning that O.J. Simpson, thirteen years to the day (!) after being acquitted of murder, was convicted of kidnapping and robbery. My first thought was this: it may take a while, but as Shakespere said in The Merchant of Venice, “at the length truth will out.”

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re on a project, you come to a milestone, a crossroads in the schedule, you take stock of where you are, and suddenly comes that feeling: you’ve been here before. And last time, it wasn’t fun when you arrived at this point. How could you have ended here again, after all you learned last time?

If you’re on a team, maybe it’s even worse – you’re not the only one who remembers the past, now that you’re facing a present that looks just like that ugly memory. Sure, I could have missed the signs we were heading towards ruin, but all of us? Isn’t this why I work in a team, so that my teammates can save me from myself?

I remember when, sitting in Ken Schwaber’s Certified Scrum Master class, I first saw his slide warning about the challenges we’d face as intrepid Scrum Masters when we returned to work:

  •  The era of opacity
  •  The tyranny of the waterfall
  •  The illusion of command and control
  •  The belief in magic

The belief in magic.” I sat bolt upright in my chair, realizing that I’d spend years and years (and years) again and again believing, or hoping, or praying that what I could see coming somehow wouldn’t come.

“Sure, last time things didn’t work because of a, b, and c, but this time, things will be different,” I’d think. “Next week, we’ll catch up” (after six successive weeks of not catching up). “This time, QA will discover the really bad bugs at the start of testing” (instead of near the end). And “this time, no one will get sick,” or “we’ll be done before Christmas for sure.” “If I can just spend one more day trying to fix this bug, I’m sure I’ll get it done.” “It’s been two weeks, now – that kidney stone is sure to pass tomorrow and Paul will be back on the team pairing and testing.” You have your own list, don’t you?

I’ve been compiling an new list recently, and it’s even more horrific.

  • “We’ve been writing tests throughout the project, but here at the end, it’s crunch time, so let’s speed up by dropping tests.”
  • “Yeah, pairing works pretty well, and it means we don’t have to do those code reviews, but heck, we can work twice as fast if we split up and work alone.”
  • “But we have to work longer hours until we get done; we won’t keep this up forever, just until we get over this hump.”
  • “Well, if we get the code feature-complete, we can use the QA period to find and fix the bugs before ship.”

I want to believe,” we think. In the end, perhaps, we’re thinking no more clearly than Mr. Simpson, that we won’t get caught this time, that what doing is “right.” Magic tricks. done right, are awfully convincing. It’s a short hop from the willing suspension of disbelief to knowing self-delusion.

Agile 2008


I got to go to Agile 2008 in Toronto, joining over 1500— well, here’s (more or less) what I wrote for my employer’s monthly newsletter on the subject, complete with frothy prose and terminal exclamation point:

In the first week of August, Agile 2008 drew over 1500 agilists and curious folks to downtown Toronto to enjoy the humidity and hundreds of sessions on everything from “The Coach as Music Producer” and “Pairing With The Stars” to “Beginner’s Mind” and “Writing Agile Haiku.”  (If you follow the links, you’ll find the original session abstracts, some slides, and even some post-facto reviews.) This year’s conference was twice the size of Agile 2007, and featured more opportunities for learning, interaction, discovery, eating, and drinking than any group of fourteen people could manage … but try we did, the intrepid contingent from SolutionsIQ.

It wasn’t hard to find us or each other among the three floors and five halls the show covered, thanks to the red-banded fedoras and all-black getups we all wore throughout the week, keying off our “Agile Noir” theme. 

I’d fill this space three times over talking just about the sessions that were fantastic, notable, worthwhile or amazing. Tom Perry’s and Dhaval Panchal’s talk on swarming behavior in nature and its parallels in Agile practice received wild raves, and Mickey Phoenix and Chris Sterling both had devoted followings before and after their presentations. SolutionsIQ speakers and moderators were everywhere every day, and they played a significant role in the Agile philanthropy project that was among the many in the ample area provided for open-space or do-it-yourself presentations. 

Those who attended the Thursday night banquet were treated to “Uncle” Bob Martin’s fabulously funny keynote address in which he, with quite serious intent, called for adding to the Agile Manifesto a fifth element valuing “craftsmanship instead of crap” in software production. 

It’ll take us weeks to digest, sort out, follow up, and act on the prodigious quantities of information absorbed and connections made in four days’ time. It’s fortunate indeed that it’s a full 50 40 (or so) weeks before Agile 2009 in Chicago!


The conference used a novel system for reviewing submitted sessions and talks: look, for example, at the entries for my workshop and one of my favorites done (twice, by popular demand, by the inimitable David Hussman). You, too, can discover links like the ones sprinkled throughout this post through the miracle of keywords and Google … or you can just buy me a few beers and hear me read from my notes and riff on my recollections.

Or you could wait for my next post, where I’ll extract from my trusty notebook my collected quotations from the conference.

Obligatory Feel-y Content: it felt good to be at the conference  among friends and role-models old and just-made. There you go.

UPDATE: If you want to get a feel for Agile2008 without having been there, check out Mark Levison’s
huge list of links.

Honesty, Resistance, and Conflict

I started, a month ago, writing a blog that was about agile and feelings and how they intertwined for me. Seven days later, my close friend died, after a very long battle with illness and, sometimes, with life.

It turns out that I have feelings about that.

For a long while, I wrestled with whether that was something to write about here. It’s become apparent to me that if I don’t write about that, there’s nothing else I can write here.

For some of you, this might be the time to skip ahead to the next post, which is more likely to be all about agile. I do promise, though, that this one has more than just the minimum Obligatory Agile Content, to invoke a newsgroup meme from long ago.


Whenever I was with my friend, with the occasional happy exception, resistance and conflict were a part of what happened between us. That’s an odd foundation for a friendship, and a dynamic that often sees friends drift apart.

That didn’t happen with us. Why?

My friend had decided, ten years ago, that she was going to be my friend; this was long before I wanted that to happen. I am, like many of us, resistant to changes, even those that might be good for me. And so, for two years, I resisted. I was cordial; she brought me lunch when she went out to get food. I was standoffish; she invited me to group gatherings after work and Easter celebrations. I was reserved; she was effusive, funny, larger-than-life. And persistent.

One day, and I don’t know what made that day different than the hundreds that preceded it, I stopped resisting. I said yes. And we became friends. I don’t know why, but I decided that what I would bring to our friendship was honesty: I resolved to always always — be honest with her.

There’s a reason that people often use “honest” and “brutally.” All-honesty-all-the-time is a tough thing to pull off, but even tougher to put up with.

Still, I, she — and we — persisted. There were periods where we argued, or fought, or sulked, or withdrew into our respective corners. I remember some of those apart-times as being — I’m being honest here, just as I promised to always be with her — wonderfully relaxed and happy. It was so much easier to go on with my life without the drama, without the conflict, without the burden of being honest even when, and especially when, it hurt. We’d always come back to some middle ground where we could, and did, deal with each other, and be the friends we were.

The last night my friend was alive, I visited her in the hospital. I’d like to tell you that the time we spent together was peaceful, loving, and mindful of the short time that remained. I can’t.


Whenever I think of agile approaches to making software, I think of resistance and conflict. I like to think that those aren’t what I bring to the table, but who knows? If those things are there when I am, maybe I bring them. And regardless of who brings them, they’re there, and they can’t be easily ignored.

I like agile because it fits how I want to live my life. I want to be honest; I prefer being direct; I value hearing what people really think, and want to know what they feel. I like working with others to get great things done. And to a greater extent than anything else I’ve used in the decades I’ve been at that, agile approaches give me more of all that in my working hours.

Once there was a small team in a startup company that needed someone to help them accomplish their goals. They picked me. Together, we learned how to work and be agile, and we shipped software. One day, I remember finishing a standup and slumping slowly to the floor — it had been a contentious meeting. Sitting there, I realized why I wanted to be working beside and with these people — they wanted to work beside and with me, even when the reality of our working together resulted in contention, resistance, and conflict. We could have retreated to our corners, backed away from our principles, stopped working on working together.

Our working relationship succeeded, not in spite of our differences or disagreements or conflicts, but because we brought all those to the table along with our talents and passions and energy. There were times when you couldn’t tell which was which — it all just was what we were, and how we were, and it was what we were willing to work with.

Working with people who “get along” feels better than when there’s discord and disagreement. To me, agile feels right because of the commitments teammates make to each other: we’ll be honest, we’ll be transparent; we’ll work together for a while, them look at what we do and make changes where we think they’ll help. Those aren’t hard to endorse and encourage.

Good agile teams also make a commitment that’s less explicit, and every bit as essential: to stick together, to value everything that each of us brings to the table, to find unity in our differences. Sometimes, it’s not that easy to see what’s right in front of us.

You can bet we’ll visit some of these ideas again in the months ahead.

Since Feeling Is First

There’s a poem by Edward Estlin Cummings. You probably know him as ee cummings, but that’s just typesetter’s revenge. He never wrote his name that way, but he was particular about how his poems were rendered into type, and that just frustrated the folks who put books together for a living. They’d learned all these rules about how to put together punctuation and capitalization, and here was this guy who wanted the book to look the way his typescript looked.

Anyway, there’s this poem. It doesn’t have a title, but most everyone (thanks to those same typesetter guys, or maybe their partners in publication, the “ediders”), uses the first line of the poem as a handle for the rest of it. So if you were to search the interwebs for

since feeling is first

you’d find it, I’d avoid violating the intellectual property rights of the estate of Mr. Cummings, and you’d get a lot of commentary and interpretation thrown in for free. I’ll wait while you go search and read…


This blog, unlike the poem, isn’t about love or punctuation (but see this). It isn’t about methodology, and it might not even be about agile, at least not much. We’ll see. But this poem is what gave me the idea to write — or try to write, much as Westerners have tried to write books “explaining” Zen — about how it feels to practice an agile approach to developing software, and how that feeling doesn’t stop with the bits but has spread through my life.