Agile and the Art of Tango

You may not know so much about tango apart that it comes from Argentina and that it looks hard. When someone starts learning tango, we all pretty much have the same experience. We concentrate on learning lots of fancy moves and then we get to the dance floor and try them out. Then we wonder why the woman doesn’t want to dance with us again. We think we’re great, but it turns out the the person following is really looking for something completely different.

Tango done right is an improvisation around certain building blocks. The most basic building blocks are developing great balance and learning how to walk properly. Some people say it takes 10 years to learn how to walk right. But the really interesting thing about social tango at a high level is that it’s not about a leader indicating what to do next and a follower blindly following along. No. It’s actually a conversation.The leader makes a suggestion and the follower gives a response. That’s where I think tango and Agile have similarities.

The agile process can be a one way street, where the product owner stocks up the backlog and the developers take each story one after another and build it, without really having much say in the matter. And maybe the developers don’t really have a clear idea of why exactly they are building what they are building. Maybe the user story is so far away from the product vision that the developer has no idea how it fits into the big picture. Maybe the product owner never bothered to put the functionality into context, or maybe the developer never asked. Maybe the developer doesn’t care about the big picture. If this developer were a dancer, then I’d dance with her once, feel that her heart wasn’t really in it, and I wouldn’t ask her to dance again.

When I’m dancing tango, it isn’t the most experienced dancers with whom I have my best dances. The best dances happen when I start to have a conversation with the follower.

How does this work?

Well, I still make a suggestion of what we are going to do, and then the follower can respond the way she wants to. She might do what I suggest, she might do what I suggest in a way that surprises me, or she might make it appear she’s going to do what I suggest and then do something else entirely. This something else fits into the music, and then it’s up to me to respond. Because it’s a conversation. It’s an improvisation.

In Agile, I might simply hand a developer a user story. He might just build it. He might come back to me and ask about it, and then go build it. He might come to me with a suggestion for something I hadn’t thought of that makes it way better, or he might come up with some completely different thing that I never thought of, that blows my mind. It’s like a conversation too. It’s fun to work with a guy like that. But just like in tango, I’m still technically the leader/product owner, but I’m not a dictator, and provided what we build is still ‘in time with the music’, I’m cool with it.

So, then what makes a tango follower able to participate in the conversation of the dance? I admit that honestly it doesn’t happen that often. A talented young tangero I met in Germany in the summer told me:

‘when I ask a woman to dance, I really want her to want to dance with me. I don’t want her to be polite and agree and we have three boring dances and she sits down, all because she’s too afraid to sound like she’s being rude. It’s better if, when I ask her, she just says no.

So, I guess what gives any experience the chance to be great, is the person really wanting to do it, really wanting to be there.

The next thing is the person has to feel safe. They have to feel that what they have to say is welcome and they’re not going to get criticised. In tango, like in Agile, the person has to have a certain level of technical proficiency. The tango dancer has to be secure in her axis and feel good about herself, with enough years of experience to know she is technically capable of handling just about anything. She’s going to have trust that the leader is not going to throw anything at her that she can’t handle, provided she relaxes and has trust.

It’s the same with a team of Agile developers. These guys and girls know a lot. They are not interchangeable followers on the dance floor. Each one is going to dance in his/her own way. In the sprint planning meeting, somebody asks a question, and people listen and they respond with good intent. Maybe something is really obvious to you, but the other person has taken what you’ve said a different way. Once you make it clear what you mean, the misunderstanding is over. Then when somebody comes to you in the sprint and asks a couple of questions, you can welcome those questions. Maybe there are a few good suggestions in there too. You won’t know, unless you make the time to have the conversation.

Once you know the basics, there are no mistakes in tango. There can be mis-steps, but when we dance we’re in it for the duration of the whole song, so what happens, happens. Both parties have autonomy. And that’s what we want in an agile team too – autonomy. We all bring what we have to the dance floor, and we dance with what we bring. The better we know each other, the smoother the experience is going to be. We get better over time. But we all know the technique and we all know the steps.

And what about the music I hear you ask?

Well, the music is the opportunity that we’re trying to express, as in the dance, as in the effort to build a new product. It may look like science, but at its best, its art.

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