n.: having a form of knowledge

Tao of Agile: What a 6th century BC philosopher can teach us about leadership.

I recently completed a course in Agile Management Principles and Practice through the University of California at Berkeley Extension. From the first day of class, I was impressed by the similarities between agile management concepts and Lao Tzu’s ancient text, Tao Te Ching. Given that the text’s title has been roughly translated to mean ‘the virtuous way’, perhaps I should not be surprised that it encompasses respect for others and values empowerment over control, key principles of agile management.

Below are examples of my perceived connections. Many English versions exist for Tao Te Ching that vary in wording; I have used excerpts from Stephen Mitchell’s translation. I find his translation to be more accessible than some to the Western mind, and it has the advantage of also being available through the Kindle smart-phone app for anytime/anywhere reference.

Tao Te Ching Excerpts Agile Management Concepts
Verse 1:

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Take time to ‘see’ the problem: Resist the temptation to treat symptoms; ask “why” five times to get to the root
Verse 36:

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
You must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.

This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

Gather input from all stakeholders and value all ideas and opinions in order to see the problem fully, to be able to explore viable
alternatives, and to identify the best solution.
Verses 2 & 29:

Therefore the Master acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

Leaders do not dictate; instead they empower teams to self organize and to determine how the work will be done. The leaders provide
needed resources and remove perceived obstacles, but the teams determine the manner in which they benefit from this support.
Verse 38:

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

Leaders inspire others’ enthusiasm and high performance, which leads to their successful completion of tasks.
Verse 3:

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything they know,
everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think they know.

Leaders inspire with a common vision and mission, and reward accomplishments that serve the customer, not just the individual or team
(e.g., meets minimum requirements rather than adding attractive, but unnecessary, ‘bells & whistles’).
Verse 5:

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Avoid ‘analysis paralysis’; have a bias for action; time-box and learn from iterations.
Verses 48 & 63:

In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.

The more we analyze future potential, the more we tend to increase a project’s scope, and the more we tend to document (requirements,
processes, etc.). Instead, seek ways to do less. By eliminating waste, we can accomplish what needs to be done when it is needed.
Verses 7 & 17:

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly filled.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”

Servant leadership helps teams to accomplish great things and to take pride in those accomplishments.
Verse 8:

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.

Design solutions that are ‘good enough’. Avoid complexity.
Verse 27:

A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.

Agility requires flexibility, adaptability, open-mindedness, tolerance for ambiguity, and embracing change.
Verse 28:

Know the white,
yet keep to the black:
be a pattern for the world.
If you are a pattern for the world,
the Tao will be strong inside you
and there will be nothing you can’t do.

Be the change you want to see. Model the values you want to instill.
Verse 57:

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.

Relinquish command-and-control management style and trust teams to do what is right. They will be more productive and design better
solutions if allowed to self govern and to explore new directions.
Verse 61:

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

Transparency and honesty are essential to creating trust and to ensuring continuous improvement. Don’t shoot the messenger.
Verse 79:

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.

Learn from what does not work as well as what does work. Iterations might mean releasing output that does not perform as expected, but
more can be learned from that—and more quickly—than from waiting to release a product that is deemed complete. Celebrate the learning
rather than seek to assign blame.
Verse 45:

True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.

Perfection is the enemy: Its definition is subjective and, thus, never achievable. True perfection is what meets the customer’s minimum requirements now.

2 June 2011 Posted by | Leadership | | Leave a comment


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