Does Agile Work Because We are Optimistic?

I read the Business Week opening remarks, How Optimism Strengthens Economies.  See this quote at the end:

the group of people who turn out to be most accurate about predicting how long it will take to complete tasks—and how likely they are to succeed—are the clinically depressed. Optimists underestimate how difficult it will be to succeed. But that self-deception is precisely what makes them willing to take more risks and invest in a better future, while the pessimists slouch toward self-fulfilling failure. 

Pessimistic people are more accurate with their estimation. Optimists underestimate. Their optimism allows them to take more risks and innovate. Which kind of person are you? (I’m both, in different circumstances.)

That got me thinking about why agile works.

Agile and lean (I’m using agile as shorthand for both) help us make progress in small chunks. That creates hope and optimism in the project team. When the project team demos or releases to other people, they trust the team and a become hopeful and optimistic.

We know from The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work that the more we make progress with small wins, the better we feel and the more likely we are to make more progress. That leads to hope and optimism.

Is this why agile works? Because we can make progress daily?

It’s not the only reason. We also need feedback. When we provide demos to other people, as often as possible, we build trust. With trust comes the possibility of better connection and feedback.

We get feature-itis because we’re no longer in requirements hell. Other people can see that a project team can deliver. That leads to optimism and hope in the organization. (I’m differentiating the two, because they are different. See my review of Seligman’s book.) With hope, people can rise to many occasions. Without hope? I bet you’ve been there on a project. It isn’t pretty.

Agile is not for everyone. Agile approaches? Yes. Completing small chunks of work and showing it to other people? You can do that with deliverable-based planning, building incrementally, and iterative approaches to replanning. If you want a name for that approach, it’s called staged delivery or design to schedule.

If you’re doing agile well, you’re delivering new small features into the code base every day or every other day. That helps you feel as if you’re making progress. When you feel as if you’re making progress, you can be more optimistic or hopeful. That helps you see new possibilities.

I would rather work in a hopeful way, making progress on a project, than feel as if I’m dragging. What about you?

So, agile might increase optimism, which allows us to make more progress and innovate. Agile done well brings joy to our work.

People are always asking my why agile works, or to prove it works. I can’t prove anything.

I have said that in my experience, when people work in an agile way, they are more productive and more effective. Now I wonder if this is because they are optimistic and hopeful about their work.

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4 Comments

  1. jim ward

    I wonder how much Parkinson’s Law contributes to more accurate estimates by pessimists. I find that employing PERT estimating counters overly optimistic estimates.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Jim, good question re Parkinson’s Law. I can imagine a pessimist saying in an Eeyore voice, “I thought it would take this long. Things happen. I don’t need to speed up. It will just take this long.” (Kind of cynical of me, eh?)

      For my readers who don’t know about PERT estimation, that’s where you provide 3 possible estimates for work: possible, likely, and pessimistic. I have pointers on that in Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management, and in Essays on Estimation.

      Reply
  2. Walter Underwood

    Years ago, Jim March (Prof. James G. March, Stanford), gave a talk at HP. One of the many interesting points was how managers have skewed views of success, and how that is important to overall progress.

    I’ll try to summarize the argument. Successful people are successful because of a mix of chance and skill. They mostly attribute this to skill. Successful people are promoted. They have an unreasonable estimate of the likelihood of success because they have been accidentally successful. They make risky decisions. This is good, because if they only made conservative decisions, society would never explore the high-risk options.

    Look around, and you’ll see a lot of people who have luckily been on big, successful projects and have advanced until the luck ran out. Also, I know one great engineer who was on five straight canceled projects.

    This paper doesn’t make that point directly, but you might read it with that thought in mind:

    https://hec.unil.ch/docs/files/83/655/march_shapira_1987_managerial_perspectives_on_risk_and_risk_taking.pdf

    So, when things are going well, don’t trust your estimates.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Walter, how funny:

      when things are going well, don’t trust your estimates.

      Hehe.

      Reply

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