What Kids Taught Me About Being Agile

While agile initiatives now spread beyond IT within the corporate world, one may wonder why we tend to brand these changes as “transformations” or “transitions.” After all, we are merely going back to a state of being which we have in fact experienced for years, not as adults but as children. 

For several years, I ran my own small education business. I taught children from the ages of 6 to 10 about science and technology, specifically space and robotics, my favorite topics, with the help of LEGO® bricks, my favorite toy.

As I was busy with this endeavor alongside my daily job as a software development manager, I got plenty of opportunities to compare first-hand the difference between kids being agile and adults doing agile. This was a topic that surfaced in many agile coaches’ narratives, but it was only then that I truly understood it.

Make a Plan, Then Change It

One of the most striking things I noticed during my students’ activities is that when children are taking on a task, whether self-initiated or not, they always seem to have a plan. The plan is clear only to them and continually changes, but it eventually leads somewhere. Even if that means starting again, they reach the finish line quickly and iterate successfully.

It’s no wonder the Marshmallow Challenge, your typical team building exercise in a corporate offsite event, is often said to be better accomplished by children than MBA grads.

Ask Why (And Truly Mean It)

When children ask “why?” they are truly curious and will likely dig further and further until there are no more answers to be had. They have neither a fear of asking nor a sense of shame, a quality which increases their learning and creative capabilities.

By contrast, adults tend to think twice before asking questions, and we feed ourselves on guesses instead.  We tend to be paralyzed by our culture, our pride or fear of judgment from our peers. Either way, we miss opportunities to enrich ourselves, while children have already moved on to their next learning experience.

Flag It as It Is

Learning how to give feedback to each other can be a daunting task for agile team members, and we often associate criticism with its destructive meaning. In contrast, I would safely bet we have all experienced a very direct, sometimes crushing and often tactless (but always honest and “fairly” constructive) feedback from a child. We can all learn something from them.

Collaborate Rather Than Cooperate 

I often tried to divide work and responsibilities among children in my workshops so that they could cooperate in building a larger LEGO® assembly. In most cases, my efforts initially failed, or at least felt like a failure. In fact, these little builders were often inclined to drop their own task to go and help a playmate realize his or hers.

By trying and iterating on the task together while sharing a goal, true collaboration was born and the children’s learning experience was greatly enhanced. The opposite tends to be true in a professional environment, where a culture of individual goals and target-setting has traditionally reigned supreme.

While agile coaches can certainly help guide and scale your organization in the right direction, asking yourself what has happened with your inner child (minus the therapy…), or simply observing your own children, should help you open your mind to the changes to come.

Have you observed any other ways in which children excel at agile principles? Let me know in the comments section below.