Agility, Feminism, and Collaboration

So. Hanna Thomas wrote an excellent article a few days back, here.

When Lean-Agile methodologies are brought up in progressive spaces, they’re often met with a suspicious side-eye. After all, as Audre Lorde said, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the… The article was briefly suppressed, but it was restored pretty quickly, and there it is. I told Hanna I’d have something to say about it, and this is that. 🙂

The article has a lot in it. I actually want to sidestep a little, demur a little, and focus in finally on what I, at least, regard as the chewy center of it.

(Readers make what they will of our work, and even as a writer, I’m no exception to that when I read. What’s chewy for me likely isn’t the chewy part for you or, indeed, for the author. C’est la vie.)

First, I don’t want to talk about the "white guy" part. Partly because I talked about that a lot yesterday, having seen the trope around in more than one place, and not citing this article at all. Partly because I don’t think it’s the chewy center. Second, I won’t really be talking about either the liberation of women or of African-Americans.

As you know, I’m a complete book dork, and I’ve read much of the work being cited, and most of the classic texts of both liberation movements. But that feels neither here nor there. The truth is, even as an old white guy, I get tired of old white men explaining those movements. So, then, you might ask, if I take away the part about the manifesto signers, and I demure in reviewing the work of the liberation theorists, historians, and activists, what even the hell? I mean, what’s left? What’s this chewy center I’m calling out?

Collaboration — frequent focused direct human dialog between people who experience each other as trusted equals — is at the heart of my agility, and it is the single most radical and revolutionary behavior we can engage in. When I look back at the early days of our movement, the years before the manifesto, what I remember most of all is the extraordinary intensity of our community.

And the important word there isn’t "intensity", it’s "community". The style of our collaboration was actually far more valuable than the direct outcome of it, more valuable than XP, Scrum, Clear, the manifesto, or the modern ick called "Agile". And however muffled the sound of that community was in the outcomes, that’s the thing I’ve always held most dear about the early days.

Our collaborations then were energetic, improvised, opportunistic, warm and sometimes hot. We knew each other, and to a remarkable extend we trusted each other. We were rambunctious, noisy, funny, kind. We were wildly impatient with anything we found that wasn’t working for us. We had little structure to our time together, nothing to tell us what we could or couldn’t focus on. We stopped activities right in the middle to talk about what we did or didn’t like about it.

We had leaders. But they weren’t bosses, and they weren’t in control. We were in control. Our discourse went wherever it went, whenever. Those people led us much as one leads the ocean while surfing. But my point here isn’t to reminisce, much as I enjoy doing that. My point is this: that style of collaboration, however muffled it may be in "Agile", is what made our movement both interesting and potent, for better or worse.

Thomas characterizes that style as: "[…] feminist, queer, anti-establishment, […] — one that is flexible, experimental, pushes boundaries, self-organises, and acts in service of community." I think that says it pretty damned well. In spite of the considerable efforts of "Agile", my agility is actuallly centered on replacing psuedo-rational psuedo-machine command-and-control hierarchies with entire rich ecologies of collaboration that fit that characterization.

And it’s important to say that collaborations like that are both how I want to change the world and what I want the world changed into. The reason it’s how I want to change the world is because it is the most powerful way to achieve any change, even changes I might not want. The reason it’s what I want the world changed into is because I believe those kinds of collaboration are themselves the most glorious achievements humans can reach.

As the article concludes, it faces the progressives, individuals and orgs alike, and seeks to point out that the two sets of behavior, "progressive" and "lean/agile", are actually of a shared kind, and should be, if you will, friendly. I found it pleasingly perturbing. I’m both an agilist and a hippie, and though I’ve stood as a hippie and sought to persuade agilists to see the family resemblance, I’ve never stood as an agilist and sought to persuade progressives to see it.

Anyway. This muse feels rambly and confused coming out of me more than it did when it was still inside me. Let me wrap up just with a few simple declaratives about the article itself.

It’s very good work. Go read it. I found it perturbing, in the best sense of the word, pressing at the boundary of a system, in this case one of ideas, to see how it reacts. It comes at its topic from angles the community doesn’t often stand. I thank Hanna Thomas for the insight.

Thanks, and good night!

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