Soft-skills fill in what bureaucracy omits

Photo by Jason SchultzI’m continually fascinated with why so many people in Agile software development–so-called engineers, who you might have regarded as more abstract thinkers–are fascinated with soft-skills and psychology in a way that accountants, lawyers, and others just aren’t. I hear my peers talking about ladders of inference to have productive conversations, using clean language to avoid prejudicing people, safety-checks during retrospectives and much more. Recently I got a hint as to why that might be.

I was speaking to a very experienced developer who was new to the Agile way of working, and who had just come out of a Scrum training workshop. He spoke highly of the experience and when asked to elaborate he said, “The thing is, Scrum is something you could sum up on two sides of A4. But the soft-skills… oh, the soft-skills did my head in.”

I think there’s a lot to this. Because Scrum–and many of its sister techniques–are so loosely defined you have to fill in the gaps by talking to people and negotiating complex issues. Technology development is complex, after all, and it’s also expensive and therefore high-risk. You can’t hide behind paperwork and process. Difficult issues have to be confronted head-on with people to bridge the gaps, and therefore those are pretty high-stakes conversations. If things go in the wrong direction as a result of a bad conversation then the consequences are long-lasting.

I don’t think this entirely explains the high interest in soft-skills, but I do think it’s a fascinating idea that those more human matters fill in where hard process is silent.

2 thoughts on “Soft-skills fill in what bureaucracy omits

  1. Nice observations. Did you see Dan Pink’s recent short video talking about knowledge work – and speaking to the newly-relevant value of “right brain” abilities?

    I observe that folks “think” better – focus better, flow better, understand problems and find solutions better – when things like fear, obligation, guilt and shame are absent from their work situation. Hence my attention to #nonviolence and #nonviolentcommunication.

    Oh, and I don’t believe it’s an Agile phenomenon as such, although maybe most often noticed in Agile adoptions (because then folks have a label to pin to it).

    – Bob

  2. Thanks for those thoughts, Bob. I will watch Dan Pink’s video with interest when I get a moment.

    I believe you must be right when you say it’s not just an Agile phenomenon. I am quite aware that I don’t hang out and work with a truly random cross-section of people so my sample is inherently biased. I’d like to know of other communities of practitioners (particularly in “technical” fields such as medicine, finance, etc) which also worry about the soft skills you and I are talking about.

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