The Shape of Change on Agile Teams

[article]
Summary:
Many times, Scrum Masters and agile coaches are confronted with the need to change a team that seems to be stuck in its own behavior. And though team members may be willing to change, they just can’t seem to get out of their current situation. The author sheds a new light on this difficult problem and proposes to change the environment instead of the team.

Many times, Scrum Masters and agile coaches are confronted with the need to change a team that seems to be stuck in its own behavior. And though team members may be willing to change, they just can’t seem to get out of their current situation. With this article I try to shed a new light on this difficult problem, and I propose to change the environment instead of the team. It could be a much easier strategy.

When I was 15 years old, I was fascinated by books about the shape of the universe. (Other guys of my age were more interested in other shapes. But I’ve always had an eye for the bigger picture.) The things I read about special relativity and the expanding universe led me to try and draw my own four-dimensional object on paper (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

A four-dimensional cube (or “hypercube”)

 

I created the object in Figure 1 by shifting an ordinary cube into an imaginary fourth dimension, and then connecting the 16 corners, just like one creates a cube by shifting a square in a third dimension, and then connecting the 8 corners. I was thrilled at the time that it was so easy to draw what was in fact a 2D projection of a 3D projection of a 4D object. It was my favorite shape at the time (until I found out other shapes were more important, when I finally started dating.) But when I showed my drawing to my physics teacher he told me it was complete nonsense. I felt defeated and misunderstood. Years later I learned that the thing I had “invented” is called a hypercube, and that my physics teacher missed a great opportunity for learning from a student.

A hypercube is yet nothing when compared to the “shape of improvement” in a complex system (like a software project). When evaluating the many states of a dynamic system, researchers imagine each variable in the system to be an axis in a multi-dimensional space. A small system with just three variables is represented as a phase space in three dimensions. While a system with 20 variables has a phase space of no less than 20 dimensions. I’m afraid that even I would not be able to draw such an object. And that would still be just a small one. Many complex systems consist of thousands or more variables, with a corresponding phase space of a mind-boggling size.

For example, seaweed has roughly 1,000 genes. Suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that each of those genes comes in just two varieties: green leaves vs. brown leaves, big leaves vs. small leaves, flat leaves vs. wrinkled leaves, etc. The number of possible states of seaweed would then be 2^1000, or one thousand dimensions with two possible values in each dimension [Waldrop 1992:167]. (Human DNA is estimated at 25,000 genes, and it has more than two variants per gene. Can you imagine drawing a hypercube for that phase space?)

A specific instance of a system is said to be in one location of its phase space (each variable has one specific value). When any of these variables change, the system is said to move through its phase space. Switching one gene in seaweed DNA (for example: a mutation from green leaves to brown leaves) will move seaweed DNA from one point to a neighboring point in its phase space. But changing many different variables at the same time (for example: mixing the DNA strings from mommy seaweed and daddy seaweed into a brand new DNA string for baby seaweed) is like

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About the author

Jurgen Appelo's picture Jurgen Appelo

Jurgen Appelo is a writer, speaker, trainer, entrepreneur, illustrator, developer, manager, blogger, reader, dreamer, leader, freethinker, and … Dutch guy.

Since 2008 Jurgen writes a popular blog at www.noop.nl, which deals with development management, software engineering, business improvement, personal development, and complexity theory. He is the author of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders , which describes the role of the manager in agile organizations. He is also a speaker, being regularly invited to talk at business seminars and conferences around the world.

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