“Tell Me Why” — or, Start with “Why” Before “How” or “What”

This content is syndicated from Agile Development Blog: Scaling Software Agility by Jean Tabaka. To view the original post in full, click here.

Why How What drawing

Question: what do Neil Young, Simon Sinek, Don Reinertsen, and Jean Tabaka have in common? We all want to know why.

Several weeks ago, we introduced a new blog series “N Levels of Planning”. Our goal in this series is to investigate how Agile planning can benefit from thinking of planning as a number of levels, or layers, or paths. In this series post, I’d like us to take a conceptual step back from what we mean by “N”. I’d like to instead think about the “Why” of Agile planning regardless of the number of levels.

The Neil Young Connection

Warning: minor non sequitur. In 1970, Neil Young released his “After the Gold Rush” album featuring as its first track the great tune “Tell Me Why”.

Love that song! I had this song buzzing through my head after a discussion with colleagues about “Why.” Lyrics like: “Still the searcher must ride the dark horse, racing alone in his fright,” and, “Tell me lies later.” What can it mean?! What is there that is so important about starting with “Why,” and to ask it repeatedly? What did the Neil Young of yore get about the searcher, the dark horse, and the race that I needed to revisit now? And what does it have to do with Agile planning?

The Reinertsen Principles

I had some suspicions after reading Don Reinertsen’s “The Principles of Product Development Flow” that the “Why” is indeed what should be driving our Agile product development. In his book, Reinertsen exhorts us to inform our decisions about product development by starting with value flow. You may call this stating the glaringly obvious. For me who had been handily sticking to the “How” and “What” in my computer science expertise for decades, this tumbled several of my false idols. Ugh.

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle

Recently, several colleagues here at Rally pointed me to a great TED talk: Simon Sinek’s “The Golden Circle”. If you haven’t watched it, take a gander. Sinek’s very simple model consists of 3 concentric circles, the innermost being “Why”, the outermost being “What” (See the picture above of the turquoise post-it.). Sinek defines successful businesses as those that start, not with “What” or “How”; they start with the core “Why”. This articulation of the “Why” rallies the business around one compelling vision and creates a vital emotional connection with its customers. “How” the company delivers on the “Why” follows from and is directed by the “Why”. Then and only then does the business move out the circle to the “What”. What exactly will our product be? Well, we know why we are building it, and we know how to deliver on this. Now it is time to build it!

We missed the “Why” boat in our initial Agile scaling advice

I was thinking about Sinek’s Golden Circle with regard to how we plan in Agile teams and Agile organizations. Too often, we have a tendency to start with  “What” as the core for our planning. If we are really maverick, we may start with “How”. Too often, I fear that our planning “Why” is conspicuous by its absence. I am fairly certain Ryan Martens and I fell into this “What” trap when we defined 5 steps for Agile scaling and maturing using Flow, Pull, and Innovate. Why were we defining how to scale and mature should have been the first question? And then How shall we do that? Okay, we did get the How: we turned to Lean Thinking principles about Flow, Pull, and Perfect (which we renamed Innovate) for guidance. And then we quickly jumped to What the practices are: 5 steps of what to do, what roadblocks to expect, what benefits to reap.

Agile planning levels need to start with “Why”

This is what I now believe to be true. Just as businesses must be driven by the “Why”, I believe we must consider the “Why” that drives any of our Agile planning. My hope is that we in the Agile product development world would come up with a fairly common answer for “Why”: smooth flow of value delivery. Period. Our “How” can be informed by the set of principles we believe would best address our “Why”. We can turn to Lean Principles as a great guide. Here, I’ll admit I favor Reinertsen’s principles of product development flow as the canon for “How”. We’ve got the “Why” and the “How” for our planning. Now we can declare our “What”: what will be our planning practices in our Agile organizations?

How Jean Tabaka fits in

With “Why”, “How” and “What” as our planning guide, there is one more beautiful gift of symmetry across Neil Young, Don Reinertsen, and Simon Sinek. Not only does this virtuous Golden Circle guide overall planning. I believe that within each of the “N levels of planning”, we can see that there is a “Why”, “How”, and “What”. Here is an example: “Why should we have a daily level of planning?” “How should we guide that planning, i.e. how would we know we were doing a good job of planning at this level?” And now, “What will our practices be around daily planning?” As we regard levels of planning as not just sufficient but necessary, we turn back to the “Why”, find guidance from the “How”, and then create the useful “What” practices.

Back to Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why”. I think we can avoid “riding the dark horse racing alone in fright” if we start our planning with a compelling “Why.” And, with thoughtful  “Why”, “How” and “What” levels of Agile Planning, I believe that we can avoid the “lies later” as well.

This is what I believe. What do you believe?

Jean Tabaka is a crash skier, sometime poet, author and Agile Fellow at Rally Software Development. You can follow Jean on Twitter at @jeantabaka

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