Is This Chaos Ok?


Iteration planning meetings for any agile team can be quite chaotic. People swarm in the meeting area collaborating on features, solutions, and schedules. To the untrained eye, the scene could cause worry lest the team falls into a destructive and disorientating type of chaos. But Michele Sliger says that there's no need to worry—the chaos that surrounds the team actually rejuvenates the collective mind.

As an agile coach, I get the opportunity to facilitate many teams' first iteration planning meetings. These meetings start like typical meetings, with everyone sitting around a table listening to one person talk. But as the meeting progresses, the team begins to move around and exploratory discussions begin around the work. The team then goes into motion, taking advantage of the tools in the room—whiteboards, sticky notes, flipcharts, etc. With these tools, they work together to figure out how to implement the requested features.

A word often used to describe this chaotic effect is "swarming." When agile teams are given a problem to solve, you will see them literally swarm together as they begin to analyze and brainstorm solutions for the issue at hand. Like birds' flocking behaviors and the swarming of bees, this collective behavior is indicative of a complex adaptive system in which the group's intelligence is greater than the sum of its parts. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, notes this to be true, but only when the group is diverse and each person brings a unique viewpoint to the problem solving event.

Sometimes this swarming looks more like a cocktail party. In larger teams, for example, I've seen a coder, tester, and data analyst gathered around a whiteboard working out how to implement a requested feature. Across the room the product owner and another coder and tester are figuring out the details on a different feature. At the other whiteboard, the DBA, architect, and a third coder are all discussing a third feature.

As they work out the tasks necessary to implement the features, they will break from their smaller groups and reform with others to review their findings and see what else might emerge from their discussions. Watching from afar, the scene looks like a cocktail party with sticky notes instead of coasters and sodas instead of martinis!

These meetings are much more animated because the team members get up and move around. Everyone participates physically and mentally, and no one suffers from the PowerPoint glaze common to traditional "let's all stare at the screen while one person does all the talking" meetings. Yet, amidst the chaos there is discipline. There is a clear purpose, a timebox within which to achieve that purpose, an agenda to guide the participants toward their goals, and a facilitator to help the team keep to the agenda, purpose, and timebox. This structure, with its boundaries, provides the stability that the team needs to focus its swarming, aka "chaos."

And there's no doubt that this event can certainly look like chaos to an outsider. However, I didn't realize until recently that it can look like chaos to insiders as well!

In the midst of the chaos during one of the initial meetings with a newly formed team of agile beginners, I turned to the project manager and said, "Isn't this wonderful?" His reply—"Is it? Are you sure?"—woke me up to his concerns about seeing everyone talking with one another without any hierarchical formation or structure. He was not used to seeing this kind of meeting.
So this brings me to the two things about chaos that I like to share with my new teams. These views of chaos are both from Rob Brezsny's book on optimism titled Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings, which is a great book full of interesting and upbeat information and stories.

The first chaos item is simply a quote about chaos: "Chaos comes in two varieties. One is destructive and disorienting; the other is rejuvenating and exciting."

Agile's chaos is the latter form! Those who are involved in the iteration planning meeting discussions are typically energized and enthused by the activity, and this feeling carries forward throughout the iteration. As a team leader or project manager, be on the lookout for the former version of chaos. If you observe the destructive and disorienting kind of chaos in your team, this is likely the result of missing or improperly applied agile disciplines, principles, or values.

The other item about chaos is a story about the ability to go on a wild ride, have fun, and still maintain balance. The story is called "careen-stable," a variant on chaos. Here's Rebecca Rusche—again from Brezsny's book—to tell you of the term's origin:

"In high school, my mom used to let me use her VW Beetle to go to basketball practice. One night after practice, a friend and I were chatting and drinking Coke when we decided to see how fast we could get the Beetle going down a nearby dirt road. Soon we were careening at 65 mph, shouting 'careen!' every time we hit a bump and went flying into the air. When we arrived back at the gym and got out of the car half an hour later, we saw my Coke can sitting on the front bumper next to the license plate. I nudged it softly to see if it was lodged in there somehow, but it fell right off—wasn't stuck at all. I thought, 'There must be a word for this magic,' and thus 'careen-stable' was born. It came to mean anything that maintains its poise in the midst of wild, fast movement."

So, to answer the project manager's earlier questions—"Is it okay? Are you sure?"—I can respond with a resounding "Yes!" Agile approaches provide a framework to contain, focus, and direct this chaos, and lively discussions are part and parcel of the whole. Encourage this fully participative approach to planning and problem solving, and you'll see what a great difference a little bit of chaos can provide!

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