Fundamentals: The first line of the Agile Manifesto

How much wisdom is in the first line of the Agile Manifesto?

Well, what is the first line? I ask, because I all too often see people think that it’s “Individuals and interaction over process and tools”. That not the first line. That’s the first value, and I’d argue that missing the first line means that you’ve totally missed the deeper context for all of Agile thinking.

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.”

That’s the first line. If you doubt me, check AgileManifesto.org.

Before you think I’m just being pedantic I’d like to walk through this sentence and really bring out its glory.

  • We”: this is something that’s done collectively, not alone.
  • are”: it’s done in the present, in other words all the time. This is not an invocation of past insights, it’s a reminder that you need to be present, in the present, conscious to what’s going on right now, and not relying on what might have happened in the past.
  • uncovering”: not inventing, or selling, or theorizing, or proposing. By being present, by paying attention to what’s going on here and now moment by moment, we can uncover what is emerging. Paying attention to the work will reveal how the work is actually working.
  • better”: not best, but better. In a creative field there is no best but there could always be better.
  • ways”: what ways? We’re not saying. We can’t. We don’t know. We are uncovering them. Agile has no answers! Sorry about that. If we thought we had the answers – the ways – we’d be selling you something that had worked for us in some situation we were in. Not your situation now. So we might achieve compliance if we had enough authority, but can you smell the hubris in that? The whole point is that we’re doing something creative. Something we’ve never done before. If we had done it before, we’d be using that! The trap is thinking you have done something before when you haven’t and relying on the “ways” that worked back then. The word “playbook” – I’m looking at you! And you, “standard operating procedure”! Those ideas are useful, even necessary, but they’re simply not sufficient in an rapidly changing world.

Where was I?

  • of developing software”: the authors of the Manifesto were at the time only thinking of software. But by taking out these words and replacing them with “working” we have a much more broadly applicable philosophy emerging. For developing software of course this all applies. But starting to work consciously, always being present to what’s emerging, that’s helpful in any field. It’s dogmatic to insist this only applies to software, and it’s closed-minded to think, for example, that “hardware can’t be Agile”. Remember “ways”? Uncover some better ways for hardware, why not? For accounting? Why not? For facilities? Why not?
  • by doing it”: the ways are being uncovered by the actual practitioners. Not theoreticians. Now theory and academic work is essential, I grant you. It can shift the paradigms of thought in which the work occurs, so it can actually accrue as “experience” not just “time served”. Ten years thinking the same way is not ten years experience. So think, and do. But theory on it’s own, no matter how fascinating, is ultimately of no value unless it’s applied.
  • and helping others do it”: which rounds us back to doing this not just collectively but also collaboratively. You get more done working with people than you do alone. More than that, it speaks to a deep principle of life: you can get whatever you want if you help enough other people get what they want. Remember where the money comes from.

This is the first line of the Agile Manifesto:-

“We are uncovering better ways of [working] by doing it, and helping others do it.”

It goes on “Through this work we have come to value-”

Now go read the values and principles and see if they don’t taste different than they did before you read this article. Delicious, eh?

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