Returning to Agile: An Interview with Dan North

Dan North is presenting three sessions at the upcoming 2012 Better Software Conference East. In his keynote, "Embracing Uncertainty: A Leap of Faith," Dan will discuss how embracing uncertainty is one of agile's core principles and how taking risks amidst diversity can result in resounding success.

Programmer and organizational change specialist Dan North applies principles from lean operations and agile software development to help organizations align their technology capabilities with their business objectives. Dan is currently working on his book  Patterns of Effective Delivery , helping organizations radically improve their delivery. He blogs at

Noel : Your upcoming session is titled "Embracing Uncertainty: A Leap of Faith." Convincing others to embrace something as often scary in the business world as "uncertainty" sounds like an awfully difficult task. What are some of the ways you help convince those who may find this intimidating?

Dan : In the business world we deal with uncertainty all the time, but we use the much more business-sounding word "risk" to describe it! To say "I'm uncertain,” sounds weak, but it's OK to say "I think this is risky." There's a lovely Swedish phrase "When you are talking to farmers, use farmers' words." What it means is: if you use familiar language you are more likely to engage people. So the first thing is to frame uncertainty in the more familiar terms of risk.

The next thing is to generate quick wins. If I ask you to do something unfamiliar, say speaking in a foreign language, I would expect you to be a little nervous or self-conscious. If I teach you some simple phrases and you repeat them, and a native of that language smiles and recognizes the phrase, you will immediately feel more confident. So taking small steps with tangible feedback is a powerful technique for exploring uncertainty.

Noel : When you talk about this being a "leap of faith," for those that need more than faith, like actual proof that this is the right thing to do, what do you give them?

Dan : That's an interesting phrase. There are different kinds of faith and different degrees of leap, so it's worth clarifying. I'm not talking about a blind faith, where I ask you to believe something just because I tell you. This is more like an empirical faith: look at the evidence and let that guide you, even if it is counter to what you would normally do.

Eli Goldratt, the author of the excellent business book "The Goal," talks about the difference between common practice and common sense. The shift in thinking to embrace uncertainty - rather than our usual approach of trying to resist or deny it - is common sense even though it is not common practice.

Noel : You've mentioned that "contradictory opinions" in a development team isn't actually a bad or hindering thing. What positives come from opposing views, and how are delays avoided in situations where an agreement must be reached?

Dan : Diversity in any group has many positive aspects, as long as the team can manage disagreements effectively. Any opinion should be open to debate or challenge. I've argued before that there are no "best practices," just different practices that work well in certain contexts. It's easy for a monoculture team to fall into repetitive habits "because that's the way we've always done it," and to fall behind developments outside of their team.

An opposing viewpoint or a fresh perspective can challenge the status quo, which can result in either adopting a new, better practice or gaining a clearer understanding of why the current practice is still appropriate: there's no downside!

On the other hand, a team can get stuck arguing the pros and cons of a way forward and find itself stuck in a form of analysis paralysis. This usually indicates conflicting opinions in the absence of any hard

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