Open Source lessons in Agile Development

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by Art Huston on February 4, 2013

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It’s no surprise that the software development has changed radically, influenced in large part by the rise of cloud computing, scalable applications and mobile devices. Technological changes, however, are only part of the story. These changes would not have been possible without behavioral changes, particularly in the the use of open source and agile software development, a methodology emphasizing an evolving feature list and frequent releases.

But not all organizations are agile, or agile enough. Are there lessons from open source that can help shift your company to an agile approach? Both were radical ideas at the time, and involved a perceived release of control, one case from developing everything in-house to relying on a community, and from a rigid development process with lots of up-front planning, to an adaptive, iterative approach. As with any sort of organizational change adopting open source or becoming agile is not easy without persuading people. This was the topic of the Agile Boston meeting on Jan 23rd on The Relationship Between Software Hacking, The Agile Movement, & the Emerging World of Culture Design with guest speaker Eric Raymond, software hacker and author of the open source paper “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”.

The most valuable lesson, and one worth remembering in all areas of life, is to emphasize the benefits of change instead of appealing to doing the right thing. Eric put it in words that I would not have used: appealing to people’s fear and vanity (the need to be ahead). That sounds manipulative, but put another way very reasonable: describe outcomes with and without the change, and emphasize how much better things could be, and the danger of not taking the new approach.

Human beings being what they are, an appeal to logic is not always enough, or even the right approach. It helps to develop your charisma, which like most things can be taught. Eric described four techniques, discussed at the meeting and presented here from his blog entry:

The first way to be charismatic is non-attachment, the way sociopaths do it. To a sociopath, other humans are meat robots with emotional handles sticking out of them ready to be grabbed.

That is not my approach, or Eric’s either, for that matter. And I hope it’s not yours!

The second way is just the opposite of non-attachment – extreme empathy for others.

The third way to charisma is channeling. The channeler, instead of identifying with their target(s), identifies with some figure or personified idea that is emotionally powerful for the targets.

The fourth way is the call to excellence. Whatever else a would-be charismatic does or fails to do, he can succeed with one simple, powerful message: “You can be more than you are.”

To be a leader, emphasize the last three approaches, particularly empathy as you begin to work with an individual. That can be tricky, though, if empathy leads to sympathy, causing you to adapt to people’s expectations or fears, instead of working with them. Channeling is an excellent approach to influence others who you don’t know well — how can you appeal to shared values and a world outlook? Dealing with somebody in a startup, for example, is likely to be quite different than somebody in an established corporation. Their view of business is likely to be different.

Lastly, always use a call to excellence in your organization. Appeal to the better part of people and their desire for growth, both personally and organizationally. Your own example of growth and passion for your work is essential, as well as a commitment to work with others directly, and to help others improve.

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