Terry Pratchett and Agile transformation: 8 Things they have in common
By Stephen de Villiers Graaff
In March this year we lost someone who, oddly enough, has been a major influence in my thinking about Agile, and specifically Agile transformation.
Terry Pratchett was one of the world’s most successful authors, gaining fame (and notoriety) for his prolific series of Discworld novels in the 1980s and 1990s. While the novels and their concepts are far too esoteric to summarise in a few sentences, Pratchett devised a world that “consists of a large disc (complete with edge-of-the-world drop-off and consequent waterfall) resting on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle as it slowly swims through space.”
Crazy, right? Except that’s exactly how so many clients that I’ve met and coached view an Agile transformation! “Get that turtle out of here, it’s too weird” is a far-too-common common response when the whole concept of an Agile transformation is first explained, especially in organisations that have become set in their ways of doing things over a long period of time.
So in honour and memory of a literary genius and genuine left-field thinker, I thought I’d explore some of Pratchett’s lesser and better-known quotes and concepts and relate them to the ‘crazy’ world we call Agile.
1. “There are three things to learn: what’s real, what’s not real, and what’s the difference.”
Two things that an implementation of an Agile framework provide right off the bat is visibility and transparency. What this usually results in is an enormous amount of discomfort, which in turn results in both active and passive resistance. The root of that resistance is fear, and that fear needs to be dealt with very quickly before it spreads. Most of this fear is borne of preconceptions and misconceptions driven by the fact that, all of a sudden, there’s no place to hide. But then you have to ask yourself: why do you want to hide in the first place? Once you understand what’s real, what’s not, and the difference between the two, you can actively tackle the fear of transformation and deal with the substance of the changes that need to happen in order to grow.
2. “A psychiatrist, dealing with a man who fears he is being followed by a large and terrible monster, will endeavour to convince him that monsters don't exist. Granny Weatherwax would simply give him a chair to stand on and a very heavy stick.”
Granny Weatherwax is a character who’s pragmatism when dealing with fear should be admired. It doesn’t matter that the monster doesn’t exist, the fear does. The monster is not real, the fear is. In a transformation, people get frightened. Is my job at risk, they wonder? The person’s job is more than likely not at risk, but the fear of job loss is still there, and very real. So let’s deal with the fear. For an Agile transformation to succeed, we need to give people ways of dealing with that fear more effectively, through knowledge, education, and being open and honest.
3. “The entire universe has been neatly divided into things a) to mate with, b) to eat, c) to run away from, and d) rocks.”
The pursuit of simplicity is at the heart of every Agile transformation. Taking Pratchett’s description of the universe, there are actually only three things we need to pay attention to: A and B, which is value, C which is risk, and D which is waste. Pretty simple.
4. “Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.”
Contrary to popular belief, failure is not a bad thing. It’s only bad if we don’t use the opportunity to learn. This concept is right at the crux of Agile: we need to look at failure differently, to take the positives from it, and to make sure we don’t fail the same way twice. That’s how we move forward. Failure is inevitable, so we need to embrace it. Our development as human beings is marked by failure before knowledge. From the time we try to take our first steps, we topple over, we bump into the coffee table, we trip over the cat; we fail, we fail, we fail. We learn how to walk. The same process repeats throughout life, and the learning we gain from the experience is at the heart of what we seek to achieve through Agile.
5. “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.”
No matter how good the intentions or how sound the reasoning for an Agile transformation, it’s going to be uncomfortable, and often downright terrifying for the people involved. Unfortunately change management is usually routinely neglected, or worse, patently ignored. We need to realise that the start of a transformation is a delicate time – there was nothing and it suddenly exploded – and that people are at the heart of every transformation, regardless of framework. We need to manage the fear, the rumour mongering, the resistance; if not, the process is doomed before it begins. Set up a team, with experience, to be there and help people that are experiencing the changes for the first time.
6. “I’ll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there’s evidence of any thinking going on inside it.”
In one of his books, Pratchett introduces a character called Luggage, who’s basically a box with a bunch of legs. You never want to see the inside of the box, because it eats people. In life, the value of thinking ‘outside’ the box is often inversely proportional to the size of the box. If the box is big enough, chances are you haven’t even met the edges yet, so why are you talking about thinking outside the box when you don’t even know the boundaries of the box you’re in? Understand the box first, then you can start thinking beyond it, because you understand how it’s constricting you. But if you haven’t got to the edges, you’ve still got so much significant value to experience before you need to start looking elsewhere. Don’t change for the sake of changing. If you just jump beyond the value you haven’t yet extracted, you’re going to lose it.
7. “She was already learning that if you ignore the rules people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don't apply to you.”
A good Agile practitioner questions everything, including Agile itself. You constantly need to push the boundaries, to look for the edges of your box, and once you reach them, go beyond it. If you’re doing things just because that’s the way you’ve always done them, stop, because it’s both dangerous and, in a business sense, expensive. Governance for the sake of governance is nothing but waste. A line in the sand represents an opportunity to cross it, just to see what happens. In a transforming organisation, there’s no such thing as a line that can’t be crossed. If things blow up, learn, and find the next line. That’s how you grow.
8. “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”
One of the pillars of Agility is respect for people; they are not resources. Miriam Webster describes resources as ‘a supply of something that can be used when it is needed,’ or worse, ‘a thing that provides something useful.’ To paraphrase Maslow’s Law of the Instrument, when an organisation sees everyone as a hammer, the temptation is to treat everything as a nail. It’s an incredibly limiting way of thinking. We are not implements, we are not all hammers; we are the personality and the ‘soul’ of a business, and we need to be treated as such. When a business sees people as it’s soul, it’s on the right track.