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Scrum Masters and Sandpipers

Examining Lean Practices in Action while Bird-Watching

On a vacation, I observed wading birds on a beach in North Carolina. I thought about how fortunate these birds were to have 180° vision.

Since our species was (and still is) an apex predator, our eyes face forward and focus on the prey in front of us. This setup has served us well here on land.

Let’s make the grand leap that this mindset is prevalent on a current type of prey: software development, writing code, delivering deliverables. Many of the software development methods are really good at focusing on the thing that’s in front of us. Some methods try to put too much in front of us and don’t respond to change very well.

Back to the bird — the sandpiper. A wave washes up on shore. The bird retreats just ahead of the water. The wave recedes with sandpiper in fast pursuit so she can spot the “tell” of her prey, and dip her beak into the sand and retrieve breakfast, the sand crab or clam. Over and over this repeats — water rushes up the beach and the bird stays ahead of it. Water recedes and the bird runs into the retreating tide after a meal.

There is an inherent time box here; though the time it takes for the next wave to crash in isn’t always the same.

Sometimes, the bird has her tail towards the surf. Her peripheral vision lets her keep an eye on what’s behind her while focusing on the important task in front of her. A wave is approaching from behind. One last stab into the sand and we’re off, staying in front of the wave.

Then I thought, if this bird was using Scrum, she likely wouldn’t be so successful. Time boxes don’t serve the rapid change going on here. If the sandpiper decided to spend exactly 30 seconds feeding, then running away, the waves would catch her; the timing of the waves isn’t set in stone. Everything is adaptive for the hunter.

The currency here is calories: use the least amount of calories to find the most calories. Of course, instincts, learned behaviors, play a big role here. Sounds pretty Lean to me: Pick a safe spot, explore, probe, watch what is behind, and stay ahead of the wave. Leave the feeding area if it doesn’t pay off or gets unsafe. And don’t use time boxes when adaptation is more critical than a set schedule.

As Lean and Agile practitioners, we can learn a great deal from the sandpiper’s ability to be flexible in the face of changing circumstances. She’s committed to producing the most value, more calories in for fewest calories out, without getting tied up in ceremony and process. By taking a 180° view of the circumstances around us, we can often achieve greater results than we do just staring straight ahead.

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