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Take the Agile Train

I noticed this week that jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Harvard University.

Wynton Marsalis

This got me thinking about some of the notable messages from his and Geoffrey Ward’s recent book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

Dr. Marsalis is a philosopher as well as a musician, and in this book he and Ward have this to say about jazz and democracy:

Jazz is the most flexible art form ever because it believes in the good taste of individuals. It believes in our ability to make reasonable choices. It takes a chance on our decision-making skills instead of legislating our freedom away with written restrictions and restrictive hierarchies. In jazz, the size of your heart and your ability to play determine your position in the band. The philosophy of jazz is rooted in the elevation and enrichment of people, plain ol’ folks.

I mention all of this in a forum on software development because I think this same egalitarian spirit also runs through much of the Agile movement. Just as jazz represents a shift away from large teams that require scores and conductors and rigid musical rules, agile in some sense represents a movement away from the forced marches of large armies of developers working to exhaustive, detailed project schedules.

Marsalis and Ward also emphasize the importance of group dynamics within the art form and I think this too reflects part of the underlying agile philosophy:

Swing — the dance and the music — bespeaks the flexible nature of American life. In jazz, the bass walks a note on every beat. The drummer rides the cymbal or plays brushes on every beat. And everybody else invents melodies and sounds that sway with, against, and upside every beat. Every beat requires musicians to reassess their relationships to one another. This is what makes swinging so challenging. You are forced to be constantly aware of other people’s feelings.

Substitute “the sprint” or “the daily meeting” for “the beat” in the words above, and they could easily be describing an agile software development team.

As a matter of fact, if we change a few words in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, it could easily become The Jazz Manifesto:

We are uncovering better ways of playing music by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over rules and hierarchies
Live music over comprehensive musical notation
Audience interaction over contractual commitments
Responding to changes over following a score

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

So what’s my message here — that you have to love jazz in order to succeed at agile? Well, no, not really (although it certainly couldn’t hurt). But just as Marsalis emphasizes that there is an underlying philosophy and feeling for people that makes jazz work, it’s important to remember that agile is more than a set of practices and deliverables: it also represents a set of beliefs about people, the way they relate to their work, and the ways they work best together.

So just as you could teach any musician the notes to “A Love Supreme,” but they still wouldn’t be playing jazz, it takes more than a different lifecycle and a new set of practices to make a successful transition to agile.

In particular, I think jazz and agile both emphasize the following:

  1. The need for flexibility/agility as a means of adapting quickly and responsively to a dynamic environment.
  2. That players/practitioners/developers, as the people most directly shaping the output of the work being done, have the most to contribute to improvements in their respective forms, and deserve the highest respect for their work.
  3. That the work is inherently creative, and cannot be managed as if is transactional.
  4. That the work is best done by interdependent teams in which all are dependent on each other for success.
  5. That teams will manage themselves to optimize their overall output in a way that makes best use of the various talents available on the team.
  6. That freedom of self-expression is balanced by the judgments of fellow team members and the customer/audience.
  7. The importance of the central discipline of a regular rhythm to the work being done.
  8. That the freedom to make mistakes, combined with short feedback loops from teammates and customers, are essential to learning, and that this sort of learning will have a more positive long-term influence on player/practitioner behavior than sets of rigid rules and management hierarchies.

So maybe it was Agility that the Duke was talking about when he was playing “Take the ‘A’ Train”!

For those interested in learning more about Marsalis, jazz and technology, see the YouTube video of Marsalis and Ward being interviewed at Google.

June 6, 2009

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