Andrea Tomasini’s mail byline has long been, “Agile isn’t something you do; it’s something you are.” It’s a tidily profound statement. Agile is about what you do in the moment; lean is about what you are. Andrea’s saw points more in a lean direction than an agile direction.
Where are you on your corporate merit ladder? Stack ranking is the darling of American culture and one of its most poisonous exports. It has taught engineers to establish a turf of some niveau, often heralded by a suitable title.
Such scales tend to have no definitive top. Barry Boehm notes that individual software skills vary by two orders of magnitude. The scale is logarithmic, and the top is difficult to delineate. For years the four-minute mile stood as an absolute, as did the 30 Kelvin limit for superconductivity. The limits humanity set for itself seem always to fall, and that is perhaps a deep aspect of what makes us human. What we do in any moment is for that moment, and is passing. What we are carries with it the potential to excel in the moment — and maybe more. But that’s a matter of effectively employing our faculties.
It’s less about what what you do than what you are and, beyond that, more about becoming than being. The difference between what you are and what you can become is a difference of statics and dynamics. “Doing your best” on a job is about what you are. My friend Jens Østergaard is a good and prolific Scrum trainer who understands that the future holds uncertainty. Both of us teach people to live each day of our projects expecting occasional failure (see: There is no Failure, only Feedback). If you fail, you can take comfort in knowing that you did your best.
Did your best is always in the context of what knowledge and resources were available to you at the time. Experience is sometimes the best teacher. It gives you the option to grow, and if you’re growing, what you will be tomorrow won’t be what you are today. The delta is about becoming.
Kaizen mind focuses more on this process of becoming than on what one is at any given time or even on the succession of hopefully ever-improving accomplishment or performance levels. The differences are subtle. The first focuses on results, and that phrase “focus on results” probably rings loud in the ears of those whose corporate cultures take it as a rallying cry. In a complex world, results are always transient in the moment.
Rather than focusing on results, it’s about focusing on the improvement process itself. Consider one engineer who focuses on improving her design, ever reducing the power needs of some system component. Meanwhile, another engineer focuses on making sure the feedback loops are in place and finds wisdom in many counselors instead of hanging her hopes on the insights that the current product generation yields up or that one can glean from a history of such data. The former is Pavlovian: a facility we can ascribe to dogs and even to earthworms. The latter is perhaps uniquely human, and may lie at the foundation of happiness in life.
“Becoming” is a word that Nonaka-sensei uses often. The grandfather of Scrum, he is steeped in the Japanese process frameworks that have inspired much of the modern world of complex development. He knows that focusing on the process will yield value; staring results too directly in the face leads to performance myopia.
Do-be-become. Do well, just be yourself, and continuously challenge yourself.