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Instant Agility

I spent quite a bit of time studying martial arts in the past. While I wouldn't say that this made me more capable of coming out of a bar fight unscathed, the effort kept me (relatively) physically fit, introduced me to my future wife, and taught me other valuable lessons. Two lessons that translates quite nicely to the workplace are the notion that you don't become agile overnight, and that true agility transcends things like flexibility.

The primary martial art I studied was Tae Kwon Do, where there is a great deal of emphasis on kicking. Before and after every session, we spent a great deal of time stretching. We stretched in ways that most experts in stretching strongly recommend against, but we were pushing to be extreme. Those that tried to get there too fast, those that pushed too hard, were rewarded with painful injures that sometimes took months to heal. It is not natural for people to bring their feet up to someone else's head level, much less intentionally and in control. It was even more challenging for me, as most people in my weight class were at least 6 inches taller than I.

Over time, all this effort paid off. I was quite flexible and lithe, far more than before I started training. Like anything else, it took time to get there, intentional effort to (literally) stretch outside of my comfort zone, to the point where I was comfortable placing my foot up beside someone's ear, with enough control to remain within the boundaries of the sport and not accidentally take their head clean off.

Everyone started this journey from different points, and had different degrees of success. We all have our own intrinsic baseline of flexibility, and some people are built in such a way that they will never get to be extremely flexible. I stopped the extreme stretching required to maintain that flexibility years ago. While I may still be more flexible than average, I am nowhere near where I was in the past.

I think there are close ties to agility on technical projects as well. We all have our baseline tolerance for change that we come from, and we can't expect to become agile with the flip of a switch, the purchase of a book, or the hiring of a consultant. There is an inertia to overcome, a comfort in our initial status quo that we need to work past, and this will take time. Some will progress more quickly than others, some will never really make the leap.

We're talking about getting to the point where we are truly agile, not just saying we are. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and it was always safer to spar against a black belt than a novice.

Which brings me back to another analogy to Tae Kwon Do. While I was quite flexible while practicing the art, one of the things I found while sparring (or even watching sparring at the Olympic level this summer) was that my hands felt like relatively useless lumps at my sides. Emphasis in Tae Kwon Do is primarily kicking, and you can inflict serious damage with a kick, as long as your target is at kicking distance. We worked on blocking, but very little punching, and almost nothing that would be effective if we were in even closer quarters. You rarely see Tae Kwon Do stylists do well in mixed martial arts competitions for that reason: it works well within the confines of the rules of the sport, but is relatively useless for real-world situations where opponents don't agree to abide by a structured set of rules.

I see this occurring on technology projects as well. Many teams (and too many consultants) suggest a particular style is best, and tend to apply it to any project that comes along. Some identify themselves as scrum shops, others argue that use cases completely model the problem space. There is a confusion between nimbleness and agility here. Give them a problem that doesn't fit the constraints of the technique they are schooled in, their likelihood of success diminishes significantly. For projects that don't fit the archetype of the scrum model, scrum can be about as relevant as trying to kick someone at grappling distance.

Agility is all about understanding as wide a range of styles as possible, when to apply them, and how to effectively transition between them. Bruce Lee understood that in the martial arts (and worked tirelessly to the point where he could effectively practice it), few people really grasp that in technology projects. We're too often looking for the instant agility solution, most of us only get to narrowly applicable flexibility.

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