Quiet Agile - or "why I want my own door".

Every so often you read something on the internet about some "disfunctional" modern family who come down to breakfast (in a hotel, say), sit down then promptly ignore each other, their noses buried inside their tablets.  

"Disgraceful!", say the commentators, "the family should be talking, not ignoring each other.  What has the world come to?  Technology is ruining the world!"  

Well, maybe.  But maybe not.  

Imagine, instead, that this wee story took place 40 years ago, and there's no iPads, just the things it replaced.  The family comes downstairs and the Dad is carrying a newspaper which he and his wife split then share, each quietly flipping through the pages, occasionally passing comment on articles of mutual interest, while they eat their breakfast, quietly.  Meanwhile, 2 of the 3 kids play a quiet game of battleships using the portable version of the game, which they always take on holiday with them, while they eat their cornflakes.  The third kid has her nose stuck in a Lord of the Rings book which she's desperately trying to finish before they leave for the day -  reading in the car makes her feel a little sick. 

Maybe what you're seeing here is not a dysfunctional family, but a happy family which enjoys each other's company AND quiet time.  The tablet is a red herring.  Some people - extroverts - enjoy loads of chatting and interaction, while other people - introverts - enjoy quiet time spent inside their own heads.  This family might be a family of introverts, being judged by people who have different intrinsic preferences.

I'm one of the quiet people and so are many of the people I work with.

We prefer going home and spend time with my family in the evening, than going to a noisy pub where we can't half the conversations which go on.  Others are the exact opposite.

We'd rather sit at our desks typing - thinking with our fingertips - than in a meeting room drawing pictures on a wall.  Others are the exact opposite.

We prefer quiet time because that's how we recharge our batteries.  We get exhausted when there are a lot of people around.  Others are the exact opposite.


I call my approach to Agile "slow and quiet" - the quiet bit is what I want to chat about today.

The short version:

  • One-third to half of the general population - and probably more in the software development population -  are INTROVERTS.
  • We prefer quiet working environments with high-quality 121 collaboration, very few big group sessions, and lots of screen time.  
  • Most modern office environments don't work so well for us - they're too loud, they're too busy, there are too many interruptions.  We crave quiet and sometimes the best we can do is shelter behind our earphones - if we are allowed to.
  • Some Agile practices are really hard and unpleasant for us. 
  • Which causes some people to push against Agile because they don't like it.  

[Technically, I'm an "ambivert" which means I'm bang smack in the middle of the extrovert/introvert continuum.  Some say ambiverts have the best of both worlds, but I think I have the worst of both: I crave quiet AND talking with people, which gets confusing at times.]


I hope you're getting the drift, but just in case, go listen to Susan Cain's fantastic ted talk on the Power of Introverts, because, frankly, it is outstanding and awesome and (for many of us) life changing:   

That video really did change my life.  Before I watched it and read her book I thought I was just a bit odd and anti-social.  It turns out that there are a lot of people who prefer the quiet life, it's just that we don't like to talk about it ...

Here're links to her book and her website.

Is Agile extrovert biased?

I don't know if Agile is extrovert biased or not.  It is certainly more extravert friendly than software development used to be.

When I started working in software development we worked in old, ugly cubicles, with big walls around us which didn't give us our own office, but gave us our own private little working space, and if you wanted to talk to someone you generally had to stand up and go talk to them.  It was quite.  When I started working we tended to work on tasks, by ourselves, which usually took a few days or even weeks to complete.  When I started working, every so often, a bunch of us would meet up and draw away on white boards then, once we'd done enough collaborative work, we'd go off and write stuff up, which we'd usually review via email (or, yes, it's predecessor).

I think it's fair to say that, way back then, we worked in an introvert friendly environment.  

And you know what?  It used to drive me crazy.  Why?  Because, like I say, I'm an ambivert and the extrovert part of me craved conversation.  I used to drive others crazy coz I'd chat any chance I got and most of them just wanted to get on with their work, quietly.

Nowadays things are very different.  We have open-plan offices, with just a few privileged folk possessing their own door .  Many of us work on tasks (stories?) which take hours, rather than days, and are almost always done with a load of personal interaction and collaboration.  Some of us have half-day long planning meetings and longish interactive retrospectives every few weeks.  Many have daily stand-ups.  A lot of these practices require introverts to partake in noisy group activities which they often don't contribute to fully (because the like to think in their head, not on their feet AND because the extraverts to dominate (because if they don't speak up then nobody else will)) and which they almost always dislike.

I think it's fair to say that, nowadays, we work in an extravert friendly environment.  

And I think that's one of the reasons why Agile sometimes doesn't stick: a lot of the practices are really unpleasant for introverts.  And that probably accounts for more than half our software development population.

What I'd like.

I prefer a introvert-friendly approach to Agile.

Which is also extravert-friendly too.

If we go for just one or the other then roughly half the office is going to be unhappy.  But this doesn't have to be an either/or choice - a zero sum game - because we can do a few things a little differently which means that both populations are a bit happier AND we still collaborate.  

I've got a few suggestions below.

But first here's some more reading

Here's a iCloud keynote presentation a colleague, Karin, and I put together for one of our lunch time "genius hour"s.  You'll find some generic hints and tips there for surviving, as an introvert, in a noisy modern office. One thing that's not in there, which is so obvious that it's invisible, is that the extroverts in your office have no understanding or empathy of why their way of working just doesn't work for you.  They're not being mean, it's that they assume most people are like them and like what they like.

So, here's some things you could do differently, to get a quieter version of Agile

  • I prefer to collect the input for retrospectives BEFORE THE meeting, via email. This gives everyone a chance to "think with their fingertips", at their own pace. It reduces the need for people to think on their feet and to share their thoughts out loud in front of a big group. It also speeds up meetings and frees up time to solve the problems, rather than just list them. I don't always do this but I find it especially useful when we need to dig a little deeper than usual.  
  • I sometimes do daily stand-ups less frequently (say 2 or 3 times each week) and, instead, I do a lot of the coordinating work by popping along to people's desks and having a quiet conversation. You know: "how's it going?", "do you need any help", "how much longer do you think it'll take, roughly?" - the same sorts of questions that happen in a stand-up, just 121, and usually sitting down.
  • I like it when people write stuff down. It's not the writing that's important, it's having quiet time to "think and rethink with your fingertips". Folk still need to talk about the ideas in the documents, review them, tweak them, and so on, but a lot of the work can be done quietly, sitting at a PC, or in 121 conversations.

Finally, this isn't my idea, but the folk who put together Agile came up with the Cave and Commons pattern: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?CaveAndCommons. It's the idea that in your workspace you need a quiet work area (your cave) but you also need a work area where you can collaborate. Worth reading.


Susan Cain's book and TED talk opened my eye's up and made me realise I'd been pretending I was an Extravert, which is, frankly, exhausting.  I spoke to others and discovered I wasn't alone.  

clarke chingComment