The Agile Tipping Point

Nirav P Assar uses Malcom Gladwell's best selling book , The Tipping Point to discuss what's necessary to fully, and successfully implement agile, in order to take advantage of all that it can bring to a software development team.

Agile consultants often take on the responsibility of helping an organization adopt agile methodologies. This is a challenging task to say the least. Introducing new ideas into an organization requires social intelligence, advanced communication skills, and persuasiveness, not to mention a sound grasp on agile principles and practices. In many large organizations, the agile consultant must also contest the deeply embedded mentality of traditional waterfall. The software industry changes constantly, but people's habits and minds aren't always amenable to change. 

Influencing in an organization is certainly not easy. But is being knowledgeable about agile, having lots of experience, and being persuasive the keys to success? Are there other more effective ways to make an idea spread?

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, examines the issue of how ideas spread quickly and become a social phenomenon. Gladwell analyzes interesting issues, and his writings are based on documented research and science. While his conclusions are often surprising, they are based on sound reasoning. His books are simply fascinating. The Tipping Point focuses on the notion that "ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do." The concepts in his book can be readily applied to implementing Agile ideas within organizations. The principles illustrated in the book can help the Agile consultant effectively spread his message.

The Tipping Point describes three "agents of change":

    • The Law of the Few
    • The Stickiness Factor
    • The Power of Context

This article will apply these agents to the software environment with the aim of making Agile a successful methodology in organizations.

Law of the Few
The Law of the Few is the rule that large differences are made by only a few select people. Any type of social change or epidemic is dependent upon the involvement of a few extraordinary individuals that have the gifts of coercion, influence, knowledge and connectedness. Gladwell's theory is a derivative of the Pareto principle which states for many events, roughly eighty percent of the effects come from twenty percent of the causes. The Law of the Few enumerates three different types of individuals: connectors, mavens and salesman. How does this apply to agile? In order to make the ideas of agile effective in an organization, we have to enlist the help of these three types of individuals.

The Connector

Connectors are people who connect us with the world around us. They have "an extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances," while staying connected with these people. In a software group, the Agile consultant must find the Connector and get that person on board. This individual could be one of several different positions in an organization. Initially, you may think it’s the director of IT, because after all he is in charge and makes all the decisions. Or you may think it's the IT manager because she is involved in day to day decisions.

While these individuals have authority, it's not the position that counts the most for a connector. It's the social traits. The connector is the individual who is friends with various members of the team and interacts with them in the workplace and in social settings. The connector is the person who has true respect and rapport with team members, the business, management, and the testers.

The connector will disseminate the agile message on your behalf and the message will catch fire. It will become part of the everyday lingo. Find the connector and the agile mindset will seep into the organization.

The Maven
Mavens are information specialists. They have deep knowledge of specialized topics and are willing to share that information with others. They are the people we rely on to keep us informed and connected with the world around us.

In his book, Gladwell references Mark Alpert, a professor at the University of Texas, McCombs School of Business. Alpert is a market maven, perpetually tracking the prices of products, analyzing the best deals for houses, cars, or household items. In addition, he has a remarkable and compulsive urge to help other with this knowledge. He is a maven and mavens want to educate, not to sell.

In a software group, you must identify and enlighten the maven in order to spread the word of agile. Agile concepts will excite the maven who will relentlessly learn about the topic. At the same time the maven will be motivated to pass that knowledge onto other team members. They are the first ones to investigate the newly introduced agile trends and report their findings to teammates. The maven could be a manager, a senior developer, or a business analyst. Get the maven on your team on board and success will be more likely.

The Salesman
The salesman is an individual who builds and instant connection with people. Their mannerisms, personality, and presence are socially contagious. Unlike, the connector, they need not be well connected with everyone in the organization. Due to their social persuasion, salesmen have extremely effective negotiating skills. Their positive non-verbal cues entice others to follow their lead. They are just plain likable.

For an idea to spread on a software team, enlist the Salesman to help you out. This person doesn't have to be an expert at Agile. They just have to be excited about it. Their personality and positivity for the idea will be caught be others. In fact, you may have to play the role of salesman! 

The Stickiness Factor
The second agent of change identified by Gladwell is the stickiness factor. We all believe that the inherent quality of the ideas we present is the key factor in determining adoption. Often this is not the case. There are many documented instances where agile has failed, and we all stand to believe that the main concepts of agile are not the problem.

The stickiness factor is not the content of the message, rather a "subtle but significant change in presentation that makes the content memorable." The essence of the stickiness factor is best illustrated by Gladwell's example of the children's show Blue’s Clues, which for a short period of time, was wildly more successful than Sesame Street. Blue's Clues cut out all the contemporary references and sophisticated jokes that Sesame Street often delivered. Thus kids' attention for the show did not wane due to comments that were over their head. Kids paid closer attention to Blue's Clues for the duration of the show, and thus the show received better ratings than Sesame Street. This was the stickiness factor for Blue’s Clues.

So what is the stickiness factor for implementing agile practices? There are probably many, but here are a few ideas. Deliver the concepts of agile in story form. Stories are a powerful mechanism to organize and deliver information in such way where others can identify with your perspective. Give an example of how an agile practice brought success in a past project. Illustrate how the practice of continuous integration helped keep the code base clean for an entire month straight and eliminated petty defects arising just before a release. Offer a storied scenario of how Test Driven Development (TDD) helped drive the design of a component, while providing a set of regression tests to conserve the quality of the code. The story format can be more effectively absorbed by the minds of team members than just an abstract academic lecture describing the concepts of agile.

Another idea for getting hold of the stickiness factor is to introduce agile practices incrementally. Start small and try to gain traction as you make progress. For example, introduce a daily standup and allow it to be successful for a few weeks. Then introduce iterations and iteration planning, followed by TDD. Entice the business with regular releases to a test environment to increase their involvement. An incremental approach can ease the transition to agile for a development team and each small success can build on the stickiness factor for agile.

The Power of Context
The final agent of change described by The Tipping Point is The Power of Context. Human behavior is sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. Gladwell says, "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur."

A transition to agile has to be supported by the right environment. If you want to introduce agile practices and methodology, there must be evidence that the organization is ready for change. You can’t force ideas on those unwilling to listen. In my experience, there are three key elements that determine the potential success of an agile conversion :

    1. Senior management must embrace agile and sufficiently understand its principles.
    2. There must be a business need to make a process change in the organization. Continuing the same route must cost more than making some kind of change.
    3. The team must have a majority of members open to learning new ideas and willing to change. They must also have an inner drive to be successful.

These three points serve as the context for agile change. Of course, if a resounding "No!" is the answer to these three questions, then you are flowing against the current and your efforts may turn fruitless as an agile consultant.

The Tipping Point is an analysis about how ideas catch fire and spread through society. We can apply these concepts to our own field. Individuals can make a difference in an organization. By applying tipping point principles, you can ignite a grass roots movement toward from within. All that is required is a little determination, heart, and knowledge of the social interactions at play between people. Change can happen and hopefully you can find the right agile tipping point.


The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
The Tipping Point (Wikipedia)
The Tipping Point Notes Review
Connector, Maven Or Salesman

* Thanks to Jacob Orshalick, partner at Solutionsit, for his review of this article

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