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Four Noble Truths of Agile

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Monk contemplating data

Buddhism and Agile each offer benefits to the ambitious. Buddhist practices help people examine and respond to life’s challenges thoughtfully. Agile practices optimize work to achieve goals faster. Buddhists seek to reduce suffering for themselves and others, an ambitious vision that would benefit from agility. Mindful agility combines these two philosophies for better, faster results. We can contribute to greater insight and happiness using both together.

The ambitious certainly suffer disappointment, depression, and other challenges: most of us fail our way to success. Agile practices—in a variety of fields (such as software development, manufacturing, and startup product design)—optimize work to achieve goals faster. Agile practices have revolutionized software development, manufacturing, and startup companies, making success more likely and failure less expensive.

Bringing Buddhism and Agile together promises an intriguing combination: happiness and success. Could Buddhists who adopt Agile practices reduce even more suffering? Traditional Buddhism argues for the monastery, where monks forswear worldly attachments for personal tranquility. But mentally-disciplined monks, armed with agile practices, could instead be working more directly on technical and societal problems, such as climate change and authoritarianism. 

Could Agilists who adopt Buddhism deliver higher agile sustainability? Agile thinking argues for rapid adaptation toward an externally chosen goal. But agile sustainability is far from certain: agile coaches get fired frequently, they are taught to confront impediments head-on, some are highly-reactive and generate their own impediments. Many companies seem to throw out agile project managers at virtually every re-org. Can Buddhism help more Agilists produce long-term value?

My colleagues and I have been exploring this combination to help individuals with personal goals, as well as teams and businesses with enterprise goals.

Dahm Hongchai is an agile coach in Portland, who was previously a Buddhist monk. He says he left the monastery to “get his hands dirty.” He offered that the problems we face in agile are a form of suffering, and I offered that every goal can be expressed as a problem suitable for 5-whys analysis. He said, “We are following the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: Understand suffering.” 

Let us here create a “Four Noble Truths of Agile,” to parallel those in Buddhism, and explore some differences and contributions of each perspective.

Buddhist and Agile Practices

Buddhist practices were developed to reduce suffering. Buddhism defines “suffering” as old age, sickness, death, the loss of pleasure, and the consequences of attachment to impermanent things (relationships, craving, etc.). 

Buddhist practices include meditation, which increases focus and objectivity, and a highly inclusive perspective on life. Buddhism focuses less on “me” and more on “we.” Buddhists, particularly in the West, pursue Buddhism as practice, experimenting and keeping practices that verifiably work (Finley 2021). Others pursue Buddhism as doctrine, accepting beliefs that might not be verifiable. We limit our discussion to Buddhism as practice.

Agile practices were developed to succeed under uncertainty and chaos. Agile practices include iterating through a series of low-cost, short-duration experiments to optimize for some larger goal. Techniques under this definition include “Lean Manufacturing,” developed by Toyota in the 1940s to deliver just-in-time high-quality automobiles; Scrum, developed by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber in the 1980s to deliver high-value software, and Lean Startup, developed by Steve Blank in the 2000s to deliver highly profitable customers. Agile practices have been applied to careers, marriages, and families, and in HR, marketing, and sales in businesses.

I am exploring the complementarity of Agile and Buddhism practice. My working thesis is that Buddhism provides high objectivity and low reactivity, while Agile provides high creativity and rapid adaptation. Buddhism provides little motivation for creativity and speed, while Agile fails to deeply address human mental limitations, such as reactivity, emotion, and bias. The combination may result in something better than either separately.

Crisis Drives Adoption

Buddhist and Agile practices share many characteristics. At any agile conference, you can’t throw a sticky note without hitting a Buddhism practitioner of some sort. Buddhist and Agile practices are unintuitive for most people, until they experience a life or work crisis.

My education in Agile began in 2007, when I led a startup company to failure (after two previous startup successes). I faced near bankruptcy, and received a pessimistic cancer diagnosis, all in the span of a couple of months. I was miserable, and my greatest misery was the failed startup: it challenged the label I gave myself, “successful entrepreneur.” 

To stop my whining, one friend said, “Read this book,” and handed me Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber. Scrum is the most popular agile framework for most work activities. Another said, “Read this book,” and handed me Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank, a book about Lean Startup, the most popular agile framework for market development.

I applied these practices immediately, in my new job at Citrix. My team started showing amazing results: working, bullet-proof products in the hands of customers in just a few months. 

My education in Buddhism began in 2015 with a divorce, and continued through the deaths of my next life partner and my parents. Again, I was miserable, but this time agile provided no solace. Agile applies when opportunities around us are changing, and helps us navigate those changes. Buddhism applies when the world suddenly changes, but leaves us with no apparent opportunities. I couldn’t experiment my way out of this misery. What worked was meditation, and questioning whether it even made sense to optimize for the self. I redirected my purpose to helping others lead more fulfilled lives, and I became happier and more productive.

The Four Noble Truths

The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.
    —Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism without Beliefs 

The four noble truths, described as actions, are:

  1. Understand suffering and its causes
  2. Let go of its causes
  3. Realize that letting go worked to alleviate suffering
  4. Cultivate a path to refine this approach

The first three noble truths can be interpreted as iterative, and the fourth noble truth as the iteration step. 

Agile Frameworks and Chaos

Different agile frameworks have characteristics that reflect the field they address. For example, in product development, the goal is integrating and delivering new features of a product frequently, and measuring production metrics in a cadence. Here, Scrum is a suitable candidate, with a measurement cadence of one to four weeks.

In customer development, the goal is to discover the most valuable customers and their specific needs. Here, Lean Startup, which doesn’t have a fixed cadence but does have iterations, provides great flexibility for exploring the unruly world of customer behavior. In lean manufacturing, the goal is to avoid inventory and other waste by starting the production of a product only after a customer orders it, then delivering it as rapidly as possible.

In all agile frameworks, time is the enemy. Agile work follows a cycle of experimentation, measurement, adaptation, etc. Some (including me) have characterized agile work as optimizing for a goal inside a chaotic system. Chaotic systems diverge exponentially with time. The longer you wait, the more unfamiliar your environment becomes.

The introduction of an adaptive agent in a chaotic system can improve the outcome relative to a goal. The faster the agent can adapt, the better the outcome. Lean Startup typically operates in cycle times of days, Scrum in two weeks, and Lean Manufacturing in multiple weeks. US Air Force fighter pilots use an agile discipline called OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act); it operates in cycle times of seconds.

The Agile Four Noble Truths

I propose four agile truths for your consideration:

  1. Understand our current impediments and their causes
  2. Mitigate or eliminate impediments
  3. Reflect that mitigating impediments led to more rapid progress
  4. Iterate with this new knowledge, using appropriate agile frameworks as a guide.

The first agile truth benefits from objectivity. Tools brought by agile practice include 5-whys root cause analysis, retrospective meetings, A3 analysis, value stream mapping, bias mitigation, etc.

The second agile truth benefits from rapid action, goal alignment, focus, and impediment escalation.

The third agile truth, reflecting, should be part of retrospection. But often we fail to celebrate our wins. Those around us may forget that agile brought us those wins.

The fourth agile truth, iteration, is everywhere in agile frameworks.

Discussion

In exploring these two iterative processes, Buddhism and Agile, we observe these differences:

  1. Buddhism does not emphasize time, while Agile operates in highly time-sensitive chaotic systems.
  2. Buddhism seeks to alleviate suffering, while Agile is used to optimize outcomes
  3. Buddhism emphasizes techniques for reducing emotion-driven reactivity, which leads to more mindful decision making
  4. Agile may support innovation at a higher level, due to its goal-seeking focus. However, Buddhism observation meditation is correlated with creativity (Baas 2014).

Buddhism and Agile share these characteristics:

  1. Both practices emphasize objectivity and verification
  2. Both practices support experimentation
  3. Both practices are counterintuitive. Buddhism asks us to meditate to encourage logical action and reduce delusion; if this were intuitive, we would see more of it. Agile asks us to deliver frequently, which incurs higher costs in delivery; many executives have asserted they can’t use agile because it is inefficient (despite statistics that show agile typically doubles project success rates).

A combined practice could involve

  1. Explorations of the combination of Buddhism and Agile in real life. 
  2. Guided meditations that reinforce basic agile concepts, such as five-whys, retrospection, measurement, risk, opportunity cost, and time, in combination with Buddhist focus, observation, and compassion meditation.
  3. Analysis and demonstrations of Buddhism and Agile operating together in personal, social, and work contexts.

My current research efforts focus on this combined practice and its implications, for individuals, families, and enterprises.

Call to Action

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References

Baas M, Nevicka B, Ten Velden FS (2014) Specific Mindfulness Skills Differentially Predict Creative Performance. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 40(9):1092–1106.

Finley W (2021) The New Dharma: A Select Bibliography of Secular Buddhism. Journal of Religious & Theological Information 20(4):123–137.

Stephen Batchelor, Winton Higgins, The core concept of secular Buddhism: a fourfold task. Retrieved (February 24, 2022), https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/the-core-concept-of-secular-buddhism-a-fourfold-task/.

Reviewers

Thanks to reviewers John Corbett, Matt Zimmerman.

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