iTouch Your Toes

Agile methodology and the creative process of software development.

Michael Scott, manager un-extraordinaire of NBC’s hit comedy show “The Office,” is one of Steve Carell’s greatest creations; a train-wreck of a boss prone to chronic fits of inappropriate behavior.  There’s a certain genius in his stupidity; a quirky predictability to his missteps each more embarrassing than the next.  While there’s no way to repeat another person’s success, trying to break down a person’s natural flow down into its unintended parts is one way to crack the mysteries of brilliant minds.  Tad Friends recent New Yorker profile does just that; instead of bringing us a cozy fireplace chat with a naturally humorous guy, the profile describes a reserved and focused man well-studied in the math of being funny.

My colleague, Freyja, and I were chatting in our office about the motivation it requires to write blog posts each week.  We recommend blogging to companies who want to explore the digital landscape but getting around to eking out a mere five hundred words for ourselves is a whole other matter.  Our tales of woe turned into a connection; we both had read the profile and thought about agile; a methodology used in software development.  Days later Freyja had completed a post and her questions expanded my ideas about the incremental steps necessary to produce creative work of any kind.

Agile is defined by a set of self-organizational principles meant to shepherd teams of designers and developers towards finished products.  These principles favor action over documentation and response over intention.  For example agile teams work in iterations allowing new products to get released quickly with new features always waiting in the wing.  Instead of crafting one persons vision to perfection and completion, a group of people creative an ever-shifting product judged by how it’s actually used instead of how it’s supposed to work.

I was taken by reading about the agile-way Carell films a scene: he lets jokes come out in the moment so he can see how each will shape the scene.  If one bombs, he plays out the moment again with a new joke next time around and will repeat this process over and over until he’s gotten it right.  In an NPR Fresh Air interview, co-actors says that working with Steve is like playing a constant game of catch-up where he’s running improvisational circles around other actors working directly off the script. While the typically two week time-frame set aside for production “sprints” may seem longer than the seconds it takes to try out a joke, it’s actually quite short in development years (traditional software development favor feature rich products often incubated for years before they go out to the market.)

Agile is also about attitude: it’s about being light, open and willing to move forward – sensing and airing questions and problems before they become disruptive, understanding frustrations as moments for reevaluation and including failures as a necessary part of success.  Only very skilled people can get away with this sort of experimentation and only the best developers and designers can work this way.  Light on your feet-ness requires a sort of confidence in the inner planning that’s happing in the moment and the ability to rework or refractor any plan in a moment’s notice.  These quick decisions are the heart of improv and also rely heavily on a trusted team; people with whom you work with who will act and react without needing to control or defend.

Playing in a band requires agile-like skills; in particular the ability to hear yourself even when other people are playing and to understand when it’s your turn to speak loudly or when someone else’s line is the most important.  Jamming also means knowing how long it’s worth playing around with one melody or sound before something comes out of the jam and when it’s time to just drop the idea and move onto a new one.  But mostly it’s about knowing when something is happening between the group and to know how to ride it out – as if the song has a life of its own and the players just happen to be the ones to inhabit it.  The song that comes out the easiest is often the best product: the now popular band Crystal Castles got picked up from practice tapes published on myspace and legend has it that Keith Richards wrote wild horses in his sleep!

I’m also reminded of Julia Child’s fun-loving and open way of embracing the mess of cooking as a metaphor for the unpredictable nature of relationships and life as a whole.  A single woman till 40, Childs came to lots of things including cooking late in the game and without much experience to speak of. The combination of her fearless attitude and disciplined dedication amounted to life as a product in itself; a whole brand created on the work of one woman willingly to make her own vulnerabilities known through the passion of creating something out of nothing with her own hands.

While the ideas of agile are nothing new, the use of its tenants as a production philosophy are the bases of today’s start-up technology culture. Facebook’s success can be seen in an agile-like framework; a site made to connect people with one another to each other grew to accommodate those people’s additional needs – like sharing photos and promoting personal and professional projects. Twitter also was created as a simple way to publish a status report before it was used for trending and community.

Does this process change the role of a project manager?  Yes, yes it does!  In less agile environments there’s always a check-list that someone has to keep track of – a defined order of rightness that one person is assigned to maintain.  While “change orders” or alterations to either the time-line of a project or the overall budget are typically up for negotiation – the entire premise upon which the project was launched prohibits truly imaginative thinking.  There’s the idea and the execution and the two must be kept separate, lest they influence each other in any grave way.

Agile asserts that creative people can do organizational work themselves, or at least that they are able to learn to do so in a supportive and structured environment.  The structure of agile (daily timed meetings with batches of color coded note cards) sees rigid to some but once the techniques are ingrained it’s possible to do away with the props and embrace a teams natural flow, adhering again to the stricter rules if the team breaks down.

Also, as Steve seems to be saying with his imminent departure from the Office – agile is also about knowing when to say goodbye.  Products were made, money was spent and a good time was had by all.  Next!

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