Dr. Alistair Cockburn is one of the original thought leaders and authors of the Agile Manifesto. He travels the world consulting and speaking on the Agile methodology and has developed a community alongside his partners, Soledad Pinter and Djordje Babic, called the Heart of Agile, which centers around the four actions: Collaborate, Deliver, Reflect, and Improve.

Alistair turned to Big Sea when he learned that we are an Agile agency, probably knowing he could “guerrilla consult” his way into a successful project.  It’s been an amazing journey.

We’ve uncovered a lot of gems along the way — about how we approach work, collaboration, feedback, delivery, pretty much everything — we’ve outlined five of the shiniest. The Heart of Agile partners believe that Agile can work regardless of industry. We believe that regardless of your industry there is something of value to be found in our experience.

Shiny Gem #1: Come with a beginner’s mind

When Heart of Agile came to us, we believed the intent was to give the design and the UX of the existing site a facelift, develop more structure around the resources, and pay more attention to conferences and events. Alistair gave us specific instruction to pull the website up together and as a group document our initial reactions. Dutifully we gathered … and our collective feedback cup runneth over. Upon first glance, we had some very fundamental questions about the site.

  • What am I supposed to do on this homepage?
  • What is the point of the site?
  • What’s the story?
  • What are your services?
  • Who is Dr. Alistair Cockburn and what does he have to do with the site?

Alistair’s style is not business as usual. Our typical Discovery meeting has an agenda and specific exercises, but for this engagement, we pushed agendas to the side and came with truly open minds. Our cross-functional team sat with Alistair and held an open-ended Discovery Discussion. We bounced around from site features to the audience these tools would serve, and back again.

One of my personal favorite quotes from Alistair during the discovery meeting was: “Everything about this website is a mistake.” While comedic, this sentiment illustrates just how large and amorphous this project really was. Coming to the relationship with open minds allowed us to come to a consensus with our new client on what was really needed to deliver a new Heart of Agile experience.

Shiny Gem #2: Make tasks tangible

Everyone on a project, clients and agency collaborators alike, needs to agree on what is needed in order to realistically track toward a deadline. This is not a groundbreaking statement, but how to align everyone is less obvious.

Alistair shared a technique with us that does just that. We wrote down all of the individual tasks associated with our website features on notecards, as well as time estimates for the tasks. We spread them out on the conference table, paying attention to when one task was dependent on another. We also marked off sections of the table for our sprints (which are weekly for our agency), and a delineation for the initial launch. Taking what is usually a digital Trello card and physically moving it in relation to other notecards and sprint lines WITH the client was revolutionary.

Laying out everything in front of us allowed us to see and agree on what was realistic for the timeline, and which features were truly needed for the initial launch.

We sat back, a little stunned by the results. Entire sections that were previous “must haves” were now marked by order of importance in a post-launch schedule. It felt like our lives just got a little easier, and our project had a greater chance of success.

Shiny Gem #3: You ain’t gonna need it

YANGNI, or “You Ain’t Gonna Need It” is a principle of Extreme Programming that is not only fun to say (yag-nee), but can also save immeasurable amounts of time. We quickly learned that in order to keep our project on track and on budget, it was crucial to hold each possible solution up to the scrutiny of its true usefulness.

Early on in the project, we estimated 13 hours to develop a certain capability and Alistair’s response was, “No single task on this site should take 13 hours.” This helped us understand more fully the YAGNI principle and pushed us to be more creative in how we implemented solutions. Question the true purpose of every feature, establish the core necessity of it, and then look for simple, elegant solutions that get the job done.

This stark approach is not only liberating but it also empowers the team to make decisions based on a shared understanding of the project needs.

Shiny Gem #4:  Embrace what works

If you had told me that I would genuinely welcome a client sitting beside me to choose logo colors and design page layouts … I honestly would not have believed you. Work sessions with clients aren’t unheard of, but it’s certainly not the norm and definitely rare for designers.

However, in the spirit of beginner’s mind, we approached this project openly. And it worked. We quickly established a language of trust and collaborated efficiently and effectively. The content strategist and writer for the project had a similar experience, scheduling “mind meld” sessions with Alistair to concept, write and edit entire pages of the new site.

The amount of time we saved by working side by side made it completely worth it. Just as important though was the effect it had on our bond as a unified team working towards a goal.

Pushing this tenet even further, I found that communicating with Alistair and Sole on Facebook Messenger was incredibly effective. Yes, you read that correctly. By the time I started using Messenger to share ideas and get quick answers, the team as a whole trusted one another and the process to the point where if something worked we just went with it.

This experience and project reminded us of something we already try to practice: Don’t get so fiercely attached to a specific way of doing things that you become resistant to change. Every project and person is different, and situations change from day to day, so more important than any process is the commitment to a goal and an understanding that we can all be flexible on how to achieve it.

Shiny Gem #5:  Polish less, share more

Early on in the project, when discussing a design deliverable, Alistair said, “Don’t spend too much time on it because it’s going to be wrong anyway.” While we’re accustomed to client feedback and design revisions, the blunt force of this statement allowed me to step away much sooner and share a rough idea before it concretized into a polished design.

The word “wrong” struck me and gave rise to a fleeting moment of defensiveness, but our commitment to open-mindedness gave me the opportunity to reflect on the statement.  He was totally right; the solutions that we developed together were inherently more informed than any that I could create in a vacuum. On top of that, this practice eliminated the need to get approval since the buy-in was made in real time.

The practice of collaboration isn’t new to how we work internally or even with other clients, but our work with the Heart of Agile team took this practice deeper and perfectly illustrated its effectiveness.

We launched a site, but this is only the beginning

When new websites launch, we typically celebrate by sending nautically-themed cookies to the client and internally letting out a collective “Woo hoo!” But as you might have guessed, this was not a typical client.

We invited Alistair to our well-timed Fun Friday game day. He brought along Sole and Djordje via video chat, bottles of champagne and Cockburn Port, and a cake that featured the Heart of Agile logo. Alistair knows how to celebrate.

He also handed out framed diplomas to each member of the team recognizing our official Heart of Agile certification.

This experience was so much more than launching a site. It was a shared effort full of spirit, mind and (ahem) heart that we are incredibly proud of and grateful for. Hopefully, these gems will leave you inspired to push and surprise yourself on your next endeavor.