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.
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