March 23, 2021

Backyard Agile – Owning the Playground


Mohammad Rashid

“Agile” in the modern day is a buzzword for many agile purists.  They constantly want to argue about how more agile practices can be incorporated into their current team setup or overall environment. Newcomers who may have suggestions of where to add more agile would not know the ground rules or the realities of an agile environment, which makes me think of the old backyard games that I used to play at home as a kid.

So who are the kids in this nostalgic analogy? Well, those are the developers. These are the kids that have made their mind up and know EXACTLY what they want, which means they’re on a completely different page as the rest of the bunch. They know what they want to achieve, but because they often have unique ideas on how to get there, they can cause conflict since they might think their plan is best.

The On-Looking Parent

Cue the on-looking parent (scrum master) who's role is to be sure all the kids have what they need for their game or activity to keep running smoothly. They may bring the kids a snack and juice box (IT tools), step in when there is conflict, and even offer up some unsolicited advice around the specific activity so that the kids might be more comfortable and play better regardless of what tool is given to them (language, platform, reporting tool).

Mr. Owns It All

Now picture the kid who owns all the equipment and wants things to go his way. You know, the one that threatens to disrupt everything if he doesn’t get what he wants... He could be the PO or even an external client. The; Dammit, we have to play with THAT kid of the yard who has almost all the power. This could be a senior executive who has been in command for so long and can’t understand the concept of facilitation. The shy team member who has difficulty socializing, could be the kid that just got a shiny, perfect set of braces and is overwhelmed by the number of times their mouth is referred to as a set of “railroad tracks” so they struggle to speak up and be heard.

Using this backyard analogy helps us remember the teams we have been on in the past; we realize that everyone thinks differently and often has a different approach to a similar situation. There are people who are born leaders, people who happily perform their role, and the stubborn bunch on the team who are hard to mold and are not going to win the Lady Byng award (look it up...).

When entering the room as consultants, we keep the image of the backyard game in the forefront of our minds. Every backyard (organization) is different, every game (product/environment) is played with different rules as all kids (teams) differ in the way they think, their skills, their goals and how big their field is (resources, budgets, skills, etc.). It is on us, the consultants, to understand the different personalities at play for every team we encounter. We should make sure that the essence of agile is understood and the flow of the game is not affected by introducing rules (structure/process) so we can improve it over time and get the results we are looking for.

The backyard for kids is a safe space, a place where they can do what they want to do and how they want to do it. It's where they experiment, some work out and some don’t but that does not stop them from trying. The backyard is a place where kids use their creativity and imagination, they interact and explore with the world around them, enhance their learning and problem-solving skills, learn to practice self-regulation, and build decision making skills.

That is the environment we should strive to create for agile teams, where developers are working and creating new solutions without fear, they hold themselves accountable for the work they do and yet come out with new solutions using their imagination and working with other people around them and cross training to ensure the team is successful and just not one person. A child will choose a toy, pick it up, play with it and after a while, choose another to start playing with, and repeat this cycle until they’re done. By the time all the kids are finished playing and tired, it's more than likely that conflict has occurred. As professionals, we need to rewire how we think of conflict and realize the utility and learning generated from it will outweigh the negative.

A team should be able to play with the tools and flirt with left field ideas as bold solutions that are considered to be outside the periphery. This is where a good Agile Coach or Scrum Master makes a difference. They need to focus on creating a safe environment, which doesn’t happen overnight. They must know the motivation and personality of their team in order to be an effective leader and align the goals of all members of the team. How this alignment happens depends on the personality of the team at hand. Creating a solid agile team and environment is simpler than putting in a hierarchy or a complete organizational structure, it is a mindset... not a process.

Want to learn more about how you can level up your agile efforts? Nexient can help. Click here to contact us.

The Latest from Nexient

We're hiring

Design cutting-edge software and digital experiences for America’s most admired brands with Nexient.

Join Our Team