What Agile Development Taught Me About Life

The startup world has made a religion of killing the sacred cow: anything that reeks of business-as-usual is frowned upon. Graduating from university? Unnecessary. Cubicles? Please. PowerPoint? Shame on you.

And while this very dismissal of orthodoxy has become its own status quo, there is one particular approach that has truly earned the right to become part of the future as far as I am concerned: agile (software) development.

Although it has been mainstream in the development world for well over a decade, agile practices are finding their way into everyday business. It's a relative of the lean movement -- basically the idea that you can test the minimum viable version of an early idea (or business) quickly and inexpensively in a real life context, rather than wasting many years or many millions with trying to build a "perfect" strategic plan. The relationship between the two disciplines is beautifully elegant. Lean is a predominantly entrepreneur discipline; its aim is to build the right thing. Agile is predominantly a developer discipline; its aim is to build the thing right.

But it was my good friend and colleague Jeff Dean who actually clarified Agile's real value to me, both in business and ultimately in my personal life. "It's all about the retrospectives," he said. And he's right.

In Agile, "retrospectives" are meetings that take place at the end of a period of work (or more frequently in our case at Doorsteps) where the team sits together to talk about what's working, what isn't, what opportunities people are seeing, and which challenges they are facing. It's about constantly checking in and questioning whether our stated approach is still making sense given everything new we're learning as we iterate.

In fact, retrospectives have taught me three important rules for working that I am now trying to live by:

1. Acknowledge Early. Address Often.

Unlike yearly reviews or check-ins, which most of us greet with dread, I found myself looking forward to retrospectives. There was never any finger pointing or hostility -- after all, even if someone had been behaving egregiously, odds are it was only for the past few days (or weeks in the most extreme case). In fact, the atmosphere tended to be enthusiastic, even jovial. People were eager to identify anything that was standing in the way of doing great work -- that became the de facto agenda item for each meeting. What's standing in your way? And, how can we remove that obstacle together? The goal is to learn and get better as soon as possible.

But it's also about checking in with each other, too -- ensuring that any simmering frustration or resentment gets acknowledged and addressed immediately and in the moment, taking action against workload imbalances or bottlenecks, and otherwise bringing anything to light before it becomes a protracted issue. No anonymous feedback synthesized by HR months after the fact. It's in the moment, in context, and face-to-face. No avoidance allowed.

2. Disable Auto-Pilot

The retrospective also forces us to stay off of auto-pilot, which I've learned the hard way is probably one of the most dangerous things you can do in your personal life, too. With Agile, you simply are not allowed to assume everything is ok unless you hear otherwise. The point is to forever question whether you are still on the best path as a team and as a company given all the new input you receive each day.

What if we were similarly checking in with our relationships, with our health, with our mood every week? What if the goal was constant micro course corrections along the way, rather than ending up in a therapist's chair or hospital after years of neglect?

3. Plan to Pivot

One of the toughest new skills I needed to learn with Agile was the willingness to question even the most basic of assumptions. Was I still in the right business? Tackling the right industry? With the smartest business model?

The retrospective asks not to simply look back on the past week, but all the way back to our initial intentions. What's more, it sets the stage for the entire team to be willing to make a pretty dramatic change of direction as soon as you get the first hints that it may be required. That doesn't mean throwing away everything you've done and starting over, but it does mean you are mentally open to identifying a better opportunity that may be completely tangential to the business you initially started. And, most importantly, not to see that as a failure but rather a natural and necessary chapter in the growth story of the most successful startups (and in life).