The winter season is rich in metaphors. One that comes to mind today is how we try to suspend the self in time like freezing water to ice. Water as a liquid is fluid, adaptable, and powerful. As ice it is unyielding, brittle, and poses challenging barriers to life. When we adopt hardened habits, we become brittle and separated from the joys of living. The Buddha described the self as a gradually solidifying pattern of being that is at odds with the flowing change of real life. He identified it as the root cause of suffering. He taught anatta, or not self. He reminded us it’s not all about me.
Change is Hard
At work, I’ve been involved in a major transformation in how my department does business. I’m in software and the shift we’re making is to a process call Agile or Scrum. It’s a team approach to getting software done. The transition has produced a lot of anxiety. It’s a perfect example of how the real world of change can clash with our desire to keep things the same.
The process of moving to agile has been something of a “cruel” social experiment. Before my team went through the formal training, I asked them to try the agile method as a means to prepare for it. The hallmarks of agile are a few key milestones; a planning meeting, a daily 15 minute stand up called a scrum, a review, and a retrospective meeting. Each meeting has a fairly brief and prescribed agenda. In that framework I asked them to work as a team to examine how they would have to shift doing business. The result was predictable. All of us did a little freak out. Making the change seemed like it would be completely overwhelming.
Suffering of Suffering
I think the anxiety that surfaced had a few sources. First was the apprehension that came with piling on a new process. We were already struggling to keep pace with the needs of a rapidly growing company. Now we were adding something new to the mix.
This is a typical life problem. The facts are just tough; with limited resources we have to somehow keep up with the growth of the business, scale our current systems, add new ones, and respond to new opportunities. This is an example of what the Buddha called the suffering of suffering. This is real world pain. We can’t escape it. But we should try to avoid suffering any more than we need to.
What are our choices? We can continue to do business as usual or change. If the old way of doing business doesn’t solve the problems we’re having, shouldn’t we alter course?
Of course, but our people are tired, worn out and getting a little emotionally fragile. Why would we choose to add another thing to their plate? We chose to change because repeating the same thing over and over is unlikely to produce different results.
If we want to suffer less, we need to change.
Suffering of Change
Remarkably, just the idea of change is a major challenge. When people have engaged in a process for many years and they’re asked to abandon it, there is significant work required to extinguish the old patterns of behavior. The patterns are familiar, predictable, and comforting. When they’re taken away, the first question that comes up is was what are the new rules?
The agile process is something of an awakened approach to building software. It looks for teams to self-organize. They’re asked to observe and adapt. When an issue arises, the process doesn’t prescribe a fix. It looks to the team to work together to solve the problem. Rather than positing a one size fits all solution, it asks people to open their eyes and apply their experience, skills and powers of observation to resolve the issues.
In essence Scrum asks that people wake up! Like most change, it sounds simple, but it’s not easy. If it were, we’d all be enlightened beings capable of responding flawlessly to each situation. I don’t think we can call our shift to agile flawless. This move has demonstrated to me that it will take a lot of personal work to make this a success.
Suffering of Conditioning
Where I see the most resistance to the change is where the principles of the new method are in conflict with the old way of doing business. I see this show up in two ways:
The Old Way Was Better
We’ve converted to Agile to address a number of problems that the old way of doing business failed to resolve. While we have a broad consensus that we need to change , if you were to observe how we’ve performed, you’d think otherwise.
In daily scrum meeting the process prescribes, there is a very precise agenda and a 15 minute time box. We have a new software engineer who recently joined us who has had experience with Agile before. On several occasions, he has politely redirected me back onto the agenda, and I’ve been a little gruff in response.
In the moment, especially when there is a challenge, I’ve often reverted to the old way of doing things. When someone points out my regression, I get defensive. I take it personally.
This is the suffering of conditioning. I am attached to the old patterns of behavior. So much so, that I take offense when I’m reminded that those methods have failed repeatedly in the past. The old patterns have become part of me. When someone points out I’m drifting into habit, I read this as an attack on me. The Buddha said, “Not So.” He said Anatta - not self.
I Want a New Delusion
The other thing that comes up is the desire to establish a new set of prescribed solutions. The perception is; if we’re asked to adopt a new system, shouldn’t the new system tell us what to do to get it right. Agile says no, each situation is different enough that a pat response is unlikely to be effective.
This is what I like, and dread, about the agile approach. It really doesn’t have a lot to say about how to solve problems or how to do it right.
One of my new Scrum Masters summed up the gap nicely, “If you say self organize to me one more time, I’ll….”. I empathize with her a great deal. I’m a process guy. This is hard.
I don’t see any evidence that Scrum’s founders Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland are Buddhist, but I see hints of the Buddha’s teachings in the method. Rather than coming up with preconceived notions about how to solve problems (what I would call a replacement delusion), Scrum asks that the team be present. It asks that they observe and adapt. Ken and Jeff call this an empirical approach. I’ve always seen the Buddha’s approach to be just that.
It Ain’t Easy
For our transition to Scrum to be a success and for us to be able to rise to the challenge of keeping up with the company’s meteoric growth, we must be capable of responding and adapting to the change of real life.
The hardening of our delusion of self prevents us from being effective. It keeps us in a cycle of repeating the same process even though we get the same sub optimal results. We must thaw out our frozen patterns of being to overcome our difficulties and ultimately succeed.
Everyone wants change and nobody likes it. It Ain’t Easy.
Let’s hope we can wake up at work!