I remember Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone very well. They were the duo who published the “Choose your own adventure” books in my childhood; games which took you from one scene to another, battling monsters, solving puzzles and collecting items that would help you later on. The objective was always to escape the dungeon with the treasure, or the rescued captive, or just you, intact… but always in dread of those two words happening too early: “The End”.
Now Portia Tung has recreated the genre, but this time the adventure is real. You are an Agile Coach, trying to help a failing team – already nominally Agile – to deliver their project in time. The dungeon is an office, the monsters are awkward people and overly optimistic managers, and you, the hero, start with only the wooden club of the Agile Manifesto; no armour, no sharp knives and no magic.
This adventure doesn’t provide hard-and-fast rules for “How to be an Agile Coach”, but it does remind me very much of my early days in that role. Mistakes are simple to make and costly; involving other people is hard work yet invaluable; and leaving yourself with no options will usually result in your demise – at least, the demise of your contract. Even though the book is far more linear than any of the early games – frequently taking you from one paragraph to the next – that mechanism did draw me in, keeping me reading from one scene to another. My experience did help me to avoid the obvious traps, but I went down those routes anyway, just to see what would happen, and found the results pleasingly realistic. Those two words – “The End” – also invoke just as much dismay, when they happen without ultimate triumph.
I did miss some of the mechanics of the adventure books I remembered. There are no artifacts to carry around, and even though the artifacts of Agile Coaching tend to be knowledge-related, it would have been a nice twist. “Do you have a vision statement for the project? If so, turn to chapter 52…” Without these artifacts, the book tended to be focused very much on the process, rather than any results or metrics; a style of coaching that I try to avoid, as I often find it leads to process for process’s sake. Sometimes in the book this happened, and I found myself following patterns of work that seemed more habitual than useful, with no explanation as to why a particular practice might be a good idea. Often it also seemed that there really was only one way to succeed, whereas having different resources to draw on would have let me, and other coaches, choose our own routes to success. There’s usually more than one way to coach a team. This would have made the adventure less linear, too.
Still, while I was reading it with an eye to succeeding (rather than chasing down the failures to see what happened) I did find it a useful reminder of all the things that we know we ought to do as Agile Coaches, but frequently don’t when it comes to real life. The need for space and reflection is emphasized a lot, as is the expectation that you’re going to be putting a bit of work in above and beyond the obvious. Reaching the realization that the team were going to deliver, and that previously hostile monsters… I mean managers… were invested in realistic prospects of success, felt suitably triumphant, as did those two words, “The End”, in the right place.
Unlike the adventure books, there are also different levels of success, too. It’s possible to fail while learning, to fail in ways that damage your career, or to succeed utterly. I enjoyed the reminder that failure isn’t always the end of the world.
I recommend this book for anyone wondering what it’s like to be an Agile Coach, or anyone who’s new to that role, or working within a larger organisation that could use that kind of help. I think it’s less useful for experienced coaches, but I would certainly advise anyone I was training as a coach to read it. And even though I found it less useful than I would have done some years back… it was still good fun!