No matter what you do, sooner or later, you will fail – and if you don’t think so, you haven’t been in I.T. long enough! Failures are a way of life, but with Agile methods there is an important difference: failure is taken into account in the methodologies, and is seen as a way to improve.

In Jazz, it’s exactly the same; all new tendencies and innovations came forward after a series of experiments and failures (sometimes live, in front of audiences!) and, of course, improvisation is also a candidate for mistakes… which you must live with! As the great sax player Coleman Hawkins said, unless you “make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.”

You can say that the main difference between traditional and agile development methods, is that traditional processes start in an orderly way, but finish in chaos, while agile processes start in chaos, but finish in an orderly way! This only happens because Agile methodologies accept failure, but learn from it.

Most agile methods (if not all) include procedures or ceremonies like “retrospective sessions”, in which the team must try to learn from past mistakes. For example, in Scrum, a retrospective is held at the end of each and every sprint, so the project team will be able to identify and acknowledge problems, learn from them, and suggest possible solutions to enhance the team’s productivity.

(Of course, these aren’t the only objectives of a retrospective meeting; you can also mention other aspects such as continuous improvement, detection of practices already in place that are conducive to the project’s success, team formation and bonding, resolution of potential conflicts, and the team’s sense of ownership and self-management through a collaborative decision-making process)

There is a possible higher level of failure – when the implementation of Agile methods fail to produce the expected results. Not all organizations have the same problems, and on a project you may detect dysfunctions that need specifically tailored solutions. Some of the harder failures to deal with include:

  • Senior management that excludes itself from Agile processes
  • Lack of a global vision for the product or the processes
  • Agile methodologies are only used in parts of the company, and there are conflicts with old style processes, or not matched speed levels that lead to delays
  • Lack of a “Culture of Failure”, where people prefer to stay with the old methods instead of moving out of their comfort zones to accept change and the possibility of failure

There is an important concept to consider: the idea of “Safe to Fail” from the “Lean Startup” approach. First, whatever theory may tell you, the real test of an idea is when you try it out in practice, to see whether it really works. You should try to “fail fast, and fail cheap”, so you won’t get dragged down if the change doesn’t quite work. And, second, when you are aware of the risk of failure, you will get extra value when you understand what happened in your experiment — in particular, if it went south!

Jazz players are keenly aware that not all musical ideas turn out to be for the best, but they deal with that as a matter of course. Agile methods also embrace failure, and the specific reasons for those failures will trigger changes, but it’s always for better; accept that you will fail, and plan to learn from those failures in order to achieve future success!

P.S. Coleman Hawkins (also known as “the Bean” or “the Hawk”) has been called the “father of the tenor saxophone”, is considered one of the founders of “bebop” jazz, and influenced other innovative musicians such as Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, all of whom have cemented his important place in Jazz history. If you want to hear a couple of ballads and quiet songs, for which he was well known, listen to standards such as Body and Soul or Smoke gets in your Eyes, and you’ll get an idea of his playing style.

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