Truthfulness on Software Teams

A short while back I invited Mishkin Berteig to come to Waterloo to talk about agility. I was looking for something that would have a broad appeal to developers, testers and so on but would also have depth. Mishkin drew a full house and gave a great presentation on delivering successful agile projects. He covered the agile bases with a good overview of agile values and practices. Things got deeper and more interesting when he talked about truth. I know he is sincere about this because of the Scrum Master training I received from him. Mishkin’s email signature is:

“Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues” – Baha’u’llah

Mishkin pointed out that agile methods rely on people speaking the truth and acting with integrity. I thought this was very insightful since most agilists focus on either technical aspects of agility such as TDD, refactoring or they focus on team and leadership issues. But what Mishkin is talking about is a deep personal honesty to see things how they really are and to act accordingly.

You see, I have from time to time in my career told little white lies to my peers and managers. And I almost always got away with it. For example, once when I was developing a financial application I made what I thought was a good design decision but really struggled to get it to work. I did not want to appear as if I had made a mistake. I basically lead everyone to believe all was well and meanwhile I worked insane hours to get it all working. I was letting pride get in my way and was lying to cover up a bad technical decision. And this lack of truthfulness prevented me from seeking help. I resented the long hours I had to put in and I was unhappy. It was unfair of me to hide the reality from my peers and managers. I suspect I am not alone.

Now, I think it should be obvious that on an agile team you simply could not get away with such behavior for any length of time. There is collective code ownership, daily stand-ups, task and story tracking, sustainable pace; all of which make the whole process much more transparent. So, on the one hand I agree with Mishkin that agile methods rely on people speaking and acting truthfully. But in practice agile methods make it hard to say anything but the truth!

But we are devious creatures and so I would like to leave you with some questions to ponder:

Developer with halo

  • Are you honestly expressing your doubts and concerns in retrospectives?
  • If something is bothering you with another member of the team do you act in a direct but respectful way to resolve it?
  • Are you able to freely admit when someone has a better idea or design than yours?
  • Are you willing to admit when you make a mistake?
  • Do you say the same things about someone when you are face-to-face with them to do you say something different behind their back?

If you can’t honestly answer yes to the above questions then maybe you’re not as honest as you should be. Start by being honest with yourself. Pick one apsect of your behavior that that is not as truthful as you would like and strive to be more truthful.

Truthfulness really is the foundation of all human virtues … and agile teams.