Re-Post: Cooking with Agile (Literally)

The following blog was posted on MATRIX Resources blog.  It can be found here.


Oftentimes at MATRIX, we talk with prospective customers about the common sense of Agile. While it can be a big investment and challenging to transform corporate cultures, the concepts, principles, and practices are actually pretty common. I know it sounds crazy, but the ideas that we use in high-tech and corporate organizational agility are very close to the way that other disciplines operate!

For example: the food service industry. In order to be successful, restaurants, food trucks and caterers need to work in a high level of agility. Take the act of preparing meals; the ability to deliver is based on a keen sense of the market, the direct and continuous feedback from someone (or some group) of customers, the capability of the team to adapt and work in a co-located space, and the availability of resources or ingredients based on a host of variables!

Recently, MATRIX partnered with The Food Movement to host a take on their “Team Building with Taste” that we called “Cooking with Agile.” The idea came from the concept that other activities can provide a working analogy of how we should work with Agile and help solidify concepts that might be more difficult to embed. Call it creating mental muscle memory using food. While we had an idea that there were similarities that we would be able to create learning experiences around, it was amazing to all of us involved just how similar the concepts and principles would be between the two disciplines.

Respect the Timebox

In most Agile methodologies, there is a concept of some sort of timebox. Whether this is based on a release construct or based on a calendar, the idea that we have a small amount of unchanging time to complete an increment of work is pretty common. Think about your day.  We sometimes joke about wanting to extend the amount of time we have in the day to fit the work, but the fact is, we can’t – we have to fit the work to the time. Likewise, in preparing meals, I can tell you from experience that, as a father, I am under a pretty strict timebox to get food ready for my family. If not, I will definitely experience negative customer feedback! In “Cooking with Agile”, this was heightened more by a strict timebox. Teams were given 50 minutes to prepare the entire range of tapas for the contest. This was good and somewhat challenging for us Agile Coaches. We wanted to take each person’s move or each team’s decision and relate it back to an Agile concept. What we found was that we couldn’t – the teams were too focused on delivering a product. They were self-organizing! They weren’t listening to thing we were saying! And it was great!

Limited and Changing Ingredients

One of the most frustrating Agile principles that organizations comment on during transformation is that it is difficult to constantly consume customer change. Oddly, most of our customers at MATRIX state that this is one of the main reasons they have hired us to help them– consume change while still working within the constraints of their technologies. On the cooking front, it would be amazing, nay, heavenly to open my pantry door each night and see thousands of endless possibilities of ingredients to prepare dinner. But alas, most nights it is more, “hey honey, what can I make with ramen noodles, chicken, and that frozen vegetable mix in the freezer?” The fact is that not only do I need to meet the needs of my customer (kids need to grow up healthy) but I also have resource and infrastructure constraints. I have a limited amount of ingredients, a set of devices, and a finite kitchen size to achieve a solution and in the midst of that sometimes I have to change an ingredient or even start over with a dish. Chef Paul with The Food Movement took this concept to another level. He provided a must-have list of ingredients, forced the teams to share space and kitchen infrastructure, and on top of it changed some of the ingredients about halfway through. In one way, this sounds like we were trying to prove a point, but the fact is, it’s real life! As we watched the teams consume the newly added “cream cheese” to their dishes (we say creativity), we watched as they gracefully consumed the new requirement while fitting it in with the original set of constraints. It was agility at its finest.

Fail Fast, Fix Fast

It is amazing and, honestly, occasionally comical when we tell organizations that failure is ok. Failure helps us learn quickly and often it is better to know what not to do rather than just know what to do. Of course, the completion of failing is fixing. Failing over and over and doing the same thing is lunacy, but failing and making quick decisions to change the scenario is wisdom. We teach this to teams and leaders within organizations in order to help foster innovation, collaboration, and transparency. In the kitchen, this concept is seen at its most elegant and simple – tasting. I have always been told to taste the ingredients, to season at every step and taste again. This constant tasting allows a failure to be recognized early in the process and for corrections to be made quickly. Most of the time, a problem caught early can be fixed without starting over, whereas waiting to the very end can give your family that “I will never eat your cooking again!” look on their face. Chef Paul, during the introductions, pointed out the large container of plastic spoons at each workstation. He called out that these were tasting spoons and that they should be used! At the end of the event, there was only one tasting spoon left at one of the tables. The teams took the time to taste often. Even as the Agile Coaches walked around, the teams offered samples of their “in progress” works of culinary genius to us. They weren’t afraid of our feedback; they weren’t concerned that their mid-timebox food wouldn’t be good enough. They were transparent and were actually excited about their work!

The event was fabulous, the hosts were incredible, the food was even good (for scrum masters, executives, and the like), but what amazed us all was that there was so much commonality and “common sense” concepts that this event brought out which aligned with organizational agility.  Next time you or your teams are struggling to overcome the latest hurdle or if you plateau with your improvements, get creative – look to everyday life for examples of how you just don’t “do” Agile, you have to “be” Agile!

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