Why Agile Works: The Success Well

One of the useful concepts I learned in martial arts was the idea of a success well.

Every person has a success well. If you try something and fail, your success well empties. If you try something and succeed, you success well fills. If you do something big, it fills a lot. If you do something small, it only fills a little bit.

The kicker is that you are only willing to attempt something of a size equal to the amount of success in your well, because you aren’t willing to go negative. So if you are going to attempt something quite large you either need to build on a prior large success, or on lots of small successes. Success breeds success, failure breeds paralysis.

Similarly, if you’re managing someone, you need to be aware of that person’s success well. If you give them a task too large they may stall for awhile doing small things before attempting it. If you give them a task and are unable to support them adequately so they fail, or the project is canceled or some other sort of failure you may need to follow up with a series of mini tasks.

Agile and the Success Well

I think that success of Agile can in part be understood in light of the success well metaphor combined with the toxic environment common to corporate IT departments. When you read the Agile literature they make a big deal about how many software projects get canceled before completion. This is all too common in IT. Engineers work hard on a project for months or years only to have it vanish. The result is cynicism, turnover, and a severe lack of productivity. Any minor setback looms large for those with a shallow success well.

Under Agile, with it’s emphasis on constant iterations, development teams are constantly rewarded with success. Success breeds success; the team gets addicted to that success and small bumps in the road are nothing compared to their overflowing wells.

Meanwhile, and this is one of the real geniuses of Agile, things that are cut from the “backlog” in order to ship the product on time are not failures because no one ever started working on them. Projects are never canceled; they are just “stopped” and declared complete.

So not only does Agile actively work to fill peoples success wells but it also keeps from draining them.

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