Unleashing the Power of Stoic Agility: Keynote for Cambridge University Press

This essay was the kickstart to the idea for exploring the synergies between Agile and Stoic philosophies.

Originally I was asked to deliver a keynote talk on “What is Agile?” to the Agile guild within Cambridge University Press and Assessment and as I iterated an interesting blend of Agile thinking and Stoicism emerged.

I have included it here in it’s entirety to show how my thinking evolves as I delve deeper into this topic.

John McFadyen

Merging Ancient Wisdom with Modern Practices

In ancient Athens, Socrates, known for questioning and challenging conventional wisdom, was assigned to lead a group of young philosophers. Their goal was to develop a comprehensive treatise on ethics. 

As a project, it faced numerous obstacles, including disagreements between colleagues, changing requirements from their patron and a tight deadline. 

Instead of becoming overwhelmed by these challenges, Socrates approached the project in a way we would be familiar with; he ensured that people could remain focused on what they could control their attitudes, their communication, and their commitment to the overarching purpose. He emphasised the importance of embracing change, learning from setbacks, and finding opportunities for growth to admit the uncertainties. He fostered a collaborative environment where everyone’s opinions were valued. 

And he encouraged open dialogue to resolve conflicts and disagreements, constantly adapting to these changing circumstances. 

Socrates has no written works left, so we don’t know if that treatise was delivered on time. But I think we can see that one of the great philosophers was working in a way that we recognise as a core foundation of the Agile philosophy. 

Who am I to be talking about, Socrates, the godfather of Stoicism? I’m not famous for it. I am an Agile coach. I’m a Scrum trainer. 

But I am somebody who follows the Stoic philosophy. And I am somebody from the Agile world. 

And for me, it’s a really interesting overlap. 

When Ben asked me here, he asked me to deliver a talk on “What is Agile?”, to set the scene for the day, to get people thinking, not about the frameworks, but about the mindset and the philosophy. 

And when I sat down to write this talk, that was at the front of my mind. 

It was not to write a talk about Scrum, Kanban, or many of the practices and techniques that you already know. But to get you thinking differently. 

What came to me, on the third iteration, of course, the first one was a very literal What is Agile talk, and the second one was a step forward in looking at Sun Tzu, The Art of War and how that aligns with Agile principles. 

And then I ended up on Stoicism. 

And, for me, this is interesting because it’s a philosophy. It’s not new. We’re talking about Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome thousands of years ago, and how does that align with very modern problems that Agile is addressing? 

I want to spend the time today looking at this, I want to show you that there is value in these ancient philosophies, these ways of thinking that you may or may not have considered before. I want you to understand that Agile doesn’t sit on its own, that it’s not just frameworks, there’s not just tools, techniques, practices. 

But there’s something deeper. 

This keynote aims to demonstrate a powerful alignment between the mindset and philosophy underpinning the Agile Manifesto and the wisdom of the Stoic philosophy. 

By exploring the Stoic virtues and practices, I hope that you can gain insights into how Stoicism can enhance your understanding of Agile principles and foster a more resilient, adaptable and ethically grounded approach to your work and life in general. 

The problem is an increasing complexity, uncertainty and rapid change that individuals face today. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm, resistance to change and difficulty in maintaining focus and stability. 

Traditional Agile approaches, while effective, may at times lack that philosophical foundation that can help provide those deeper insights and strategies to navigate these challenges that are appearing. 

For me, the solution lies in integrating the mindset and practices of Stoicism with our Agile approaches by embracing Stoic virtues such as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice and applying Stoic practices like Sympatheia and the Dichotomy of Control. Individuals and organisations can foster a mindset that embraces change, navigates challenges with resilience, and maintains a balance between agility and stability. 

This integration provides a philosophical framework that enhances the Agile approach, offering practical wisdom and ethical guidance to face the storms of change and complexity with equanimity and purpose. 

Through the exploration of Stoic philosophy and its alignment with Agile practices, I hope to offer you some enhanced understanding, some practical strategies and a renewed sense of purpose in navigating the challenges of the modern world. 

By embracing Stoicism’s timeless wisdom, individuals and organisations can unlock new levels of resilience, adaptability and ethical decision-making to thrive in an ever-changing landscape. 

The Agile Manifesto and Stoicism: A Perfect Marriage

As we delve into the profound connection between Stoicism and Agile, it’s essential to set the stage by exploring the commonalities and overarching themes that unite these two philosophies. 

While Stoicism originated thousands of years ago in ancient Greece and Rome, Agile is a  modern mindset for managing complex work and solving complex problems. 

Despite these differences in time and context, both Stoicism and Agile share some fundamental principles that align seamlessly and provide a powerful framework for growth. 

Stoicism recognises the ever-changing nature of the world and emphasises the importance of adapting our mindset accordingly. Similarly, Agile embraces the reality of change, advocating for flexibility and continuous improvement. 

Both Stoics and Agile practitioners understand that resistance to change leads to unnecessary suffering and ineffectiveness. 

Stoicism places great emphasis on developing resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity. Stoics believed that one’s character is forged through trials and challenges. Similarly, Agile teams embrace the concept of “fail fast, learn fast”, encouraging experimentation and learning from mistakes. 

Both Stoicism and Agile emphasise the importance of resilience and the ability to bounce back from setbacks. 

Both Stoicism and Agile recognise the transformative power of mindset. Stoicism teaches that we have the power to choose our perspective and response to external events. Agile emphasises the importance of a growth mindset fostering a continuous learning and improvement culture. 

Both philosophies remind us that our perceptions and attitudes shape our experiences and outcomes. 

Stoicism encourages individuals to focus on what is within their control rather than expending energy on things outside their influence. Similarly, Agile teams prioritise work that delivers the most value to the customer. By aligning efforts with what truly matters, Stoicism and Agile promotes efficiency and effectiveness. 

Stoics emphasise the interconnectedness of humanity and the importance of treating others with respect and kindness. Agile, too fosters a collaborative approach advocating for self-managing teams and effective communication. 

Both philosophies recognise the power of collective effort and the magic that arises from working together towards a common goal. 

By understanding these foundational principles, and recognising the shared values between Stoicism and Agile, we can begin to unlock the immense potential that emerges from combining these philosophies. 

Together they provide a holistic framework for growth, resilience, adaptability, and effective work. 

Stoic Virtues: The Building Blocks of Agile Success

Stoicism, an ancient philosophy that has stood the test of time, offers a profound framework for living a virtuous, fulfilling life. 

At its core are four cardinal virtues, wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These virtues serve as guiding principles for individuals seeking inner strength, resilience, and ethical decision-making in the face of life’s challenges. 

The virtue of wisdom involves cultivating a deep understanding of the world and oneself. It encompasses the ability to discern what is within our control and what is not, to embrace the unknown with curiosity, and to make sound judgments based on reason and rationality. 

Courage is the virtue that empowers individuals to face adversity, challenges and fears with bravery and resilience. It involves standing up for what is right, taking calculated risks, and embracing discomfort in pursuit of growth. 

The virtue of temperance is about self-control, moderation, and balance. It is the ability to regulate these desires, impulses and emotions, avoiding the extremes and finding that harmonious middle ground. Temperance allows individuals to navigate life’s pleasures and hardships with equanimity. 

Justice is the virtue that centres around fairness, equity and moral integrity. It involves treating others with kindness, compassion and respect, upholding the principles of quality and striving for the collective well-being of society. 

The Stoic virtues provide a moral compass and a roadmap for living a virtuous life. While each virtue is distinct, they are interrelated and reinforce one another. Wisdom guides our understanding. Courage empowers us to act, temperance helps us find balance, and justice guides our interactions with others. 

By cultivating these virtues, individuals can nurture their character, navigate life’s challenges and lead a life aligned with virtue and ethical principles. 

One of the core value virtues in Stoic philosophy represents the cultivation of practical insight, understanding and discernment and involves the ability to navigate life’s challenges, make sound judgments and align one’s actions with reason and virtue. 

Wisdom: Embracing the Unknown with Openness

Wisdom as that virtue finds a powerful alignment with the Agile mindset, particularly in its emphasis of embracing the unknown with openness and adaptability. 

In Stoicism, wisdom is not merely an intellectual pursuit but a way of life rooted in self-reflection, self-awareness, and the continuous search for truth. Agile similarly encourages mindset learning and adaptability. 

In Stoicism, wisdom involves a genuine curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Agile encourages a similar mindset of continuous learning and improvement by embracing the unknown with openness. Agile teams foster an environment that values curiosity, engages and encourages exploration, and embraces new ideas and perspectives. 

Both wisdom and the Agile mindset recognise that growth and progress arrive from the humble acknowledgement of what is yet to be discovered. 

Wisdom also necessitates humility and intellectual flexibility. It involves recognising our knowledge’s limits and being open to new insights. Agile similarly emphasises the importance of humility and a growth mindset. By openly embracing the unknown, Agile practitioners let go of preconceived notions and biases, remaining receptive to new information, alternative viewpoints, and emerging possibilities. 

Both wisdom and the Agile mindset recognise that true growth requires a willingness to expand our understanding and adapt our beliefs and practices, involve practical reasoning, and the ability to adapt one’s actions to align with changing circumstances. Agile methods embrace experimentation, iteration, and adaptation are central tenants by embracing the unknown. With that openness, Agile teams are willing to take risks, explore different approaches, and adapt their strategies based on feedback and learning. 

Both wisdom and the Agile mindset recognise that progress often emerges from embracing uncertainty, taking calculated risks, and adapting in the face of new information.  

Wisdom helps individuals navigate life’s complexities with equanimity and involves developing deep resilience, emotional intelligence and the ability to maintain composure in the face of challenges. The Agile mindset similarly encourages emotional intelligence and adaptability. As individuals and teams, we navigate complex work and ever-changing requirements. By embracing the unknown with openness, Agile teams cultivate a sense of calm and resourcefulness, responding to challenges with clarity, creativity, and a focus on delivering value. 

Wisdom guides courage by providing the discernment and insight necessary to face adversity with resilience and choose virtuous actions, even in the face of fear. 

Courage: Navigating the Storms of Change

One of the other fundamental virtues in Stoicism represents the ability to face adversity and hardships and act virtuously in the face of fear. It involves the willingness to confront challenges and embrace discomfort for the sake of growth and the pursuit of good. 

Courage aligns remarkably well with the Agile mindset, particularly in the context of navigating the storms of change with resilience and adaptability. 

Stoicism views courage as a moral virtue that enables individuals to confront obstacles, uncertainties, and the winds of change with fortitude and wisdom. Likewise, the Agile mindset emphasises adaptability and resilience in the face of constant change and vile volatility. 

Courage involves both embracing change and accepting the inherent uncertainty of life. The Agile mindset shares this emphasis on embracing change as an essential aspect of managing the work. Agile teams recognise that change is inevitable and view it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Individuals and teams develop the resilience to navigate the storms of change by cultivating courage and adapting their plans and approaches to meet new challenges head-on. 

Courage involves taking calculated risks in pursuit of what’s virtuous and meaningful. The Agile mindset also encourages experimentation and risk-taking to drive innovation and progress. Agile teams embrace the concept of “fail fast, learn fast”, take calculated risks, learn from failures, and adjust their strategies accordingly. By cultivating courage, individuals and teams are more willing to step outside their comfort zones, try new approaches, and try and take the necessary risks to navigate the storms of change. 

Courage entails willingly embracing discomfort and hardship for the sake of growth from the pursuit of virtue. The Agile world shares this recognition that growth often arises from challenging situations. Agile teams actively seek feedback, engage in continuous improvement and foster a culture of learning. By cultivating courage, individuals and teams are more inclined to face difficult conversations, confront their limitations and embrace discomfort as an opportunity for growth and resilience in the face of change. 

Courage involves maintaining composure and resilience in the face of adversity. The Agile world emphasises the importance of resilience and adaptability in the face of constant change. An Agile team will embrace challenges as opportunities to learn to grow and improve. By cultivating courage, individuals and teams develop the strength to persevere through the storms of change, remaining focused, determined and resourceful, even in the most challenging circumstances. 

Courage finds its balance in temperance as the practice of self-control and moderation ensures that courageous actions are undertaken with measured consideration and in alignment with a shared vision and purpose. 

Temperance: Balancing Agility and Stability

Temperance represents the practice of self-control, moderation, and balance in all aspects of life and involves aligning our desires and actions with reason and virtue, avoiding excess and finding the middle ground. 

The virtue of temperance finds resonance with the Agile mindset, particularly in the context of balancing agility and stability with discernment. 

In Stoicism, Temperance is viewed as a means to achieve inner harmony and tranquillity. The Agile mindset similarly seeks to balance the need for flexibility and adaptability with stability and predictability. 

Temperance involves finding a harmonious balance between the different aspects of life. In the Agile world, there is a similar recognition of the need for balance, agility and stability. Agile methods, such as Scrum, provide frameworks that allow teams to be responsive to change while providing stability through iterations and predictable cadences. By cultivating temperance, individuals and teams can navigate the complexities of the work and strike a balance between the need for agility and the stability required for sustainable progress. 

Temperance involves discernment and choosing when and how to adapt. Similarly, the Agile mindset encourages teams to be discerning in their adaptability. Agile teams constantly evaluate the changing circumstances, customer needs and feedback and make informed decisions about when to pivot or refine their approach. By cultivating temperance, individuals and teams develop the discernment necessary to balance the urge for constant change with the stability needed to ensure efficient and effective delivery. 

Temperance in Stoicism involves practising self-control and avoiding excess, and the Agile mindset shares this emphasis on self-control. Agile teams prioritise disciplined execution, focusing on the most valuable work and avoiding distractions or unnecessary complexities by cultivating temperance in individuals and teams, developing the discipline to stay focused, make deliberate decisions, and exercise self-control in the face of challenge, changing priorities and demands. 

Temperance involves aligning actions with reason and virtue. Similarly, the Agile world encourages adaptability with purpose. Agile teams seek to deliver value to customers and stakeholders while embracing change. By cultivating this temperance, individuals and teams ensure that adaptability serves a purpose and aligns with the values and objectives of the work of the organisation. This allows for a balance between the need for agility and the stability required to achieve meaningful outcomes. 

Temperance upholds justice by fostering a balanced and fair approach to decision-making, ensuring that actions are guided by principles of fairness, equity, and the well-being of all involved 

Justice: Balancing Fairness and Collaboration

Justice is a fundamental virtue of Stoic philosophy. It represents the practice of fairness, equity and moral integrity. It involves treating others with kindness, compassion, and respect and aligning our actions with principles of righteousness. 

The virtue of justice finds alignment in the Agile mindset, particularly in the context of balancing fairness and collaboration. 

In Stoicism, justice is viewed as a virtue that extends beyond individual actions, encompassing the collective well-being and harmony of society. The Agile mindset similarly emphasises collaboration, teamwork, and creating an environment that values fairness and respect.

Justice involves making decisions with fairness and equity. The Agile mindset emphasises transparency and inclusivity in decision-making processes. Agile teams practice collaborative decision-making, seeking input from all stakeholders and considering diverse perspectives. By cultivating justice, individuals and teams ensure that decisions are made fairly, ensuring everybody’s voices are heard and considered.

Justice involves respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals. The Agile mindset recognises the value of diverse perspectives and fosters an inclusive environment. Agile teams embrace the diversity of skills, backgrounds and experiences, recognising that it enriches problem-solving and decision-making processes. By cultivating this form of justice, individuals and teams can create an environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and included.

Justice entails collaboration and recognition of our interconnectedness. The Agile mindset emphasises the importance of collaboration, self-managing teams and shared ownership. Agile teams work together, share knowledge and collaborate to achieve common goals. By cultivating justice, individuals and teams foster a spirit of cooperation, support and collective responsibility, creating an environment that promotes collaboration and shared success.

Justice in Stoic philosophy also involves acting ethically and taking responsibility for our actions. The Agile world places importance on accountability and ethical conduct. Agile teams adhere to ethical guidelines, promote transparency, and take responsibility for their work. Through this, teams and individuals ensure that their actions align with ethical principles promoting trust, integrity, and accountability. Individuals and teams can balance fairness and collaboration by aligning the Stoic virtue of justice with the Agile mindset. 

In the pursuit of justice, we embrace the virtue of wisdom, weaving discernment and understanding into our commitment to fairness and the betterment of society; and so the virtues interconnect.

Stoic Practices: Anchors in a Storm of Uncertainty

As we delve into the practices of Stoicism, we uncover a rich tapestry of tools and techniques that can enhance our understanding and application of these virtues. 

Practices such as Premeditatio Malorum, Amor Fati and Sympatheia offer practical guidance for preparing ourselves mentally and emotionally, embracing our fate with love and acceptance, and recognising our interconnectedness with all. 

Additionally, the practice of journaling, meditation and contemplation provide avenues for self-reflection and self-awareness, and the development of wisdom in our daily lives. 

By integrating these practices into our Agile mindset, we can amplify our ability to navigate challenges, foster collaboration, and lead with fairness and ethical decision-making. 

I want to take some time now just to explore these practices in more detail to uncover the transformative power in aligning Stoicism with Agile principles.

The Dichotomy of control is a fundamental part of Stoic philosophy. It emphasises distinguishing between what is within our control and what is not. It guides us to focus our attention and efforts on what we can influence while accepting with equanimity, the things beyond our control. 

Aligning with Agile principles and values, the dichotomy of control encourages practitioners to prioritise their energy and resources on factors they can directly impact, such as their attitude, actions, and interactions. By recognising and accepting the limitations of control over external circumstances, Agile teams can adapt and respond effectively to change, embrace uncertainty, and maintain a resilient mindset in the face of challenges. 

Dichotomy of Control also aligns with Agile values of collaboration and openness. It encourages individuals to let go of rigid attachment to specific outcomes, fostering a willingness to listen to different perspectives, incorporate feedback, and co-create solutions with team members and stakeholders. By focusing on what can be influenced and working collectively, Agile teams can foster a culture of collaboration, innovation, and continuous improvement. 

You will all have been part of a retrospective. And I’m sure some of you, as the action coming out of that retrospective, have talked about somebody outside of the team doing something. And I have to, and it’s not successful; we expect somebody else to understand what is good, what is important, based on a conversation we’ve had without them. 

Dichotomy of Control helps us understand this and helps us to remember that instead of taking an action for somebody else to do something, we need to look at ourselves and what we can do. What is within our power to do or to influence? Then recast that action not as somebody else doing something but as helping them understand the need to do something. 

I’ve had it with teams who have wanted directors to hire a new person. 

And that was their action. 

Hire a new tester. 

Great, wonderful. 

The director didn’t care. 

When we instead looked at ourselves and said, What can we do? And we sat down, and we thought about it. We built a small business case, we sat down, and we said what would this do for us? How would a tester help the team? And we presented that business case to the director. They understood the need for it, they understood what it would give them, and then they could take action, which was to hire somebody new. 

Now that we understand the concept of focusing on what we can control, let’s explore another powerful, Stoic practice called Premeditatio Malorum. It invites us to take a proactive approach by contemplating potential challenges and adversities in advance.

Premeditatio Malorum: Embrace Adversity, Cultivate Resilience

Premeditatio Malorum, or the premeditation of evils, is a Stoic practice that involves contemplating potential adversities or challenges in advance in advance. It encourages individuals to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for difficult situations, allowing them to navigate uncertainties with greater resilience and equanimity. 

This practice aligns with the Agile principles and values by promoting adaptability and preparedness. Agile teams understand that change and challenges are inevitable in their work and embrace this practice to anticipate potential obstacles. 

By proactively considering various scenarios, risks and challenges, Agile practitioners can develop contingency plans, identify mitigation strategies, and make informed decisions to minimise the impact of adversity. 

Premeditatio Malorum also aligns with Agile values of transparency and inspection. It fosters open and honest conversations within teams and with stakeholders about potential challenges and risks. By addressing concerns proactively, Agile teams can foster trust, collaborate effectively, and adapt their plans to overcome obstacles when they arise. 

Furthermore, Premeditatio Malorum encourages a growth mindset within Agile teams. It helps individuals embrace setbacks and failures as opportunities for learning and improvement. 

By anticipating challenges. Agile practitioners are better prepared to iterate, experiment and pivot their approach when faced with unexpected difficulties, ultimately enhancing their ability to deliver value to customers. 

Premeditatio Malorum aligns with the Agile principles and values by promoting adaptability, transparency, and a growth mindset that empowers Agile practitioners to face challenges with resilience, make proactive decisions, and foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement. 

This has come about working with teams when I’ve seen them sit down and consider what they know about the organisation. 

What has happened in their past? What could happen in their future? 

One of the good examples is a team who had been working in a particular area and they had struggled with the testing infrastructure. This was a part of the organisation that was owned by a separate department. 

And it had traditionally been poor. 

And so they sat down. They thought about it, and they said, “Well, what could happen? Well, we could lose our test infrastructure. It could be slower. We could not have it provisioned in time. We have it suddenly unavailable at certain key points.”

In this one area, they had a discussion 

They understood that these things might happen. Not that they would, that they might. Based on their experience. Based on their knowledge of the organisation and how it worked in the past. 

Because they’d had this open conversation, when something did go wrong, they had already considered what to do. 

One of the things that went wrong was in the middle of their review. They had been reviewing their product on the test server, showing everybody what was working when the server went down. 

And they already had an answer in place. 

The idea wasn’t particularly well implemented. 

The idea was that they could run their reviews on a different server. So when the test server went down, they used their backup server for two reasons, one as an explanation of the issues they’ve been having with the test environment. And also, it was an opportunity to show how they could respond to a challenging circumstance quickly and effectively. 

Having prepared ourselves for adversity, we can now move on to Amor Fati, not only accepting our fate but loving, and embracing it.

Amor Fati: Embracing the Present Moment

Amor Fati, love of fate in Latin, is a concept that encourages individuals to embrace and accept their fate or the circumstances of their lives with love and gratitude. It involves recognising that everything that happens, whether favourable or unfavourable, is part of a larger plan and an opportunity for growth. 

Amor Fati aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting a mindset of acceptance, adaptability, and resilience. Agile practitioners understand that change is inherent in their work and embrace the concept of Amor Fati to cultivate a positive outlook. By loving and accepting their circumstances, teams can approach challenges and uncertainties with a sense of gratitude and a willingness to learn from every experience

Amor Fati also aligns with the Agile values of customer collaboration and responding to change. It encourages Agile teams to embrace the outcomes of their work and the feedback received from customers and stakeholders. By loving and accepting the feedback, Agile practitioners can make the necessary adjustments and improvements, continuously enhancing the value they deliver. 

Furthermore, Amor Fati encourages Agile teams to focus on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying excessively about the future. By loving and accepting the present circumstances, they can maintain a state of mindfulness and engage fully in their work. This alignment with Agile values of individuals and interactions helps foster collaboration, teamwork, and a sense of purpose. 

Amor Fati aligns with the values and principles by promoting acceptance, adaptability, and mindfulness. It enables Agile practitioners to approach challenges with gratitude and a growth mindset, respond to feedback with openness, and engage fully in their work. By embracing Amor Fati, Agile teams can cultivate resilience, adaptability, and a sense of purpose, enhancing their ability to deliver value and thrive in an ever-changing environment. 

Whenever I’m thinking about Amor Fati, this loving of fate, one team springs to mind; they turned up in their sprint review, and they thought they’d done a good job. 

They were proud of their work. 

Yet, every single thing was considered unfinished. Every single thing was rejected by the business. 

They didn’t like it; they didn’t like it at all. 

And many teams could, and in fact do, go away into their retrospective and complain about it. 

And this team, I will not pretend that they took everything with good grace. I wouldn’t say they were loving of their fate. 

But they were accepting. 

They understood it. 

And in the discussion in the retrospective, what came out was this focus on the Definition of Done. 

Up until that point, they hadn’t understood it; they hadn’t understood the need for defining what their quality was. 

They learned. And in hindsight, they understood that the learning was incredibly powerful. 

They welcomed it in the future.

They learned that they needed to talk to their product owner; they needed to talk to the business sooner than once every two weeks, that they needed to consider the importance of the quality of what they were building, not just getting stuff done but getting it done to a quality that was acceptable, that was professional. 

From that one sprint review, we managed to turn an entire team around, from people who turned up and did their job to people who really understood the importance of the discipline behind Agile.

They accepted their fate; they accepted the feedback with a level of equanimity after a bit of a complaint. 

Going forward, when things went wrong, they looked back, and they always thought, well, it’s not as bad as what’s happened in the past. 

We survived that; we grew from that; we can be better and grow from this. 

As we contemplate the principle of Amor Fati, the love of our fate, we are reminded by the parallel concept of Memento Mori, the remembrance of our mortality.

Memento Mori: Cultivating Humility and Urgency

Memento Mori, “Remember death”. 

It’s a Stoic practice that encourages individuals to contemplate their mortality and the transient nature of life. It serves as a reminder to live each day fully, appreciate the present moment and prioritise what truly matters. 

Memento Mori aligns with the Agile principles and values by promoting a sense of urgency, focus, and perspective. Agile practitioners understand the value of time and the need to make the most of it. By reflecting on the impermanence of life, they are reminded to prioritise meaningful work, collaborate effectively, and deliver value promptly. 

This practice also aligns with the Agile values of individuals and interactions and responding to change. Momentum Mori prompts Agile teams to embrace a sense of purpose, maintain focus, and adapt their plans in the face of shifting priorities. It helps them avoid complacency and encourages continuous improvement, enabling them to respond more effectively to the evolving needs of customers and stakeholders. 

Furthermore, memento mori fosters a mindset of gratitude and appreciation. Agile practitioners who contemplate the brevity of life develop a greater appreciation for their opportunities and experiences. This mindset of gratitude promotes a positive work environment, nurtures relationships within the team and encourages individuals to value and acknowledge the contributions of others. 

Memento mori aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting a sense of urgency, focus and gratitude and encourages practitioners to prioritise meaningful work, adapt to change, and appreciate the present moment. By embracing Memento Mori, Agile teams can foster a sense of purpose, collaboration, and continuous improvement, ultimately enhancing their ability to deliver value and create a more fulfilling work environment. 

Retrospectives are where we see this come up the most. 

Think of the retrospectives you’ve been in. How often is it that you’ve taken time just to consider where you are, where you could be and how to move forward? Have looked at what is important to deal with today. 

I’ve worked with many teams, and I’ve led many retrospectives. I’ve been in more. 

And what happens in these is that moment of clarity, of acceptance, of where we are, that things aren’t perfect, that things can be better, and that we need to continue pushing forward. 

Memento Mori reminds us that today could be it. 

Tomorrow, we could finish. We could stop the work that we’re doing. The team could be taken away and given something else. 

Feedback loops are vital. Focusing on what matters now is vital. 

Not in some pessimistic, nihilistic way of worrying about dying, but recognising the impermanence of everything. 

To do a great job, we should be striving today to be better than yesterday, not just every few weeks in a retrospective, but every day, trying to be better because it matters. 

As we learn to reflect on our own mortality, we uncover its powerful link to the next principle, Sympatheia, the interconnectedness of everything, prompting us to live each day with mindfulness.

Sympatheia: Connecting Hearts, Inspiring Unity

Sympatheia, from the Greek meaning shared experience, is a Stoic concept that emphasises the interconnectedness of all beings. It recognises that we are part of a larger whole and that our actions and well-being are intertwined with the well-being of others. 

Sympatheia aligns with the world of Agile by promoting collaboration, empathy, and a sense of shared responsibility. Agile approaches emphasise the importance of teamwork, effective communication, and valuing individuals and their interactions over processes and tools. By embracing the concept of sympatheia, Agile practitioners foster a deep sense of empathy and understanding for their team members, stakeholders and customers. 

This concept also aligns with the Agile values of customer collaboration and responding to change. Sympatheia encourages Agile teams to actively listen to customers’ and stakeholders’ needs and feedback, seeking to understand their perspectives and experiences. By cultivating a sense of shared experience, Agile practitioners can co-create solutions that truly meet the needs of those they serve. 

Furthermore, sympatheia encourages Agile teams to foster a supportive and inclusive work environment. It promotes the idea that the success of the team is interconnected with the well-being and growth of each individual member. By valuing team members’ diverse strengths and contributions, Agile practitioners can create an atmosphere of trust, collaboration, and collective achievement. 

Sympatheia aligns with the Agile world by promoting collaboration, empathy, and a sense of shared responsibility and encourages Agile practitioners to actively listen, understand the needs of others, and co-create solutions that prioritise the collective well-being. By embracing Sympatheia, Agile teams can foster a supportive work environment, enhance collaboration, and deliver value that truly meets the needs of their customers, and stakeholders. 

When I think of sympatheia, I’m very often drawn to servant leadership. 

It’s no longer in the Scrum Guide, but we often think of it as a key part of the scrum master role, somebody who is there to lead, somebody who is there to show people a vision of a future way of working that could be better.

Then works with them. And for them. 

Somebody who is aware that together they succeed, that a team is more than a collection of individuals. As the team improves, each individual person is growing, learning, and adapting, and therefore we can keep moving forward. 

My work as a scrum master and as an Agile coach is often founded in sympatheia, this understanding of bringing people together so they can work together, being collectively more effective and better as a whole than they are the sum of those as their parts. 

For me, this is a vital thing. 

And it is why these practices appear separate from the virtues. Sympatheia tells us that everything’s interconnected, the whole world, every person, everything we do, and therefore the steps we take and the decisions we make, are going to impact other people. 

And as the principles I’ve already mentioned connect together, so does the next Summum Bonum, the ultimate good, a reminder that in fostering empathy and a sense of unity, we discover the pinnacle of virtue.

Summum Bonum: Discovering the Path to Fulfillment

Summum Bonum, “the highest good”, is a concept that centres around the pursuit of moral excellence, virtue and fulfilment. It emphasises the importance of aligning one’s actions and choices with principles that lead to a meaningful and virtuous life. 

Summum bonum aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting a focus on delivering value and fostering ethical decision-making. Agile approaches prioritise delivering value to customers and stakeholders, aiming to create products and services that meet their needs and provide meaningful outcomes. By embracing the concept of Summum Bonum, Agile practitioners align their efforts with the pursuit of excellence, ethics, and long-term value creation. 

This concept also aligned with individuals and interactions and customer collaboration. Summum Bonum encourages Agile teams to communicate openly and respectfully, promoting ethical behaviour and collaborative decision-making. By striving for the highest good, Agile practitioners prioritise the well-being and success of both their team members and the customers they serve. 

Summum Bonum fosters a mindset of continuous improvement and learning. Agile approaches emphasise the importance of inspecting and adapting, seeking feedback and making iterative improvements by aligning their actions with the pursuit of the highest good. Agile practitioners embrace a growth mindset and strive to achieve and enhance their skills, knowledge and ethical judgement. 

Summum bonum aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting a focus on delivering value, ethical decision making and continuous improvement. It encourages Agile practitioners to prioritise the pursuit of excellence, ethics, and long-term value creation in their work. By embracing Summum Bonum, Agile teams can foster a culture of accountability, ethical behaviour, and customer centricity, ultimately enhancing their ability to create meaningful outcomes and achieve the highest good in their endeavours. 

For me, Summum Bonum is best reflected in sustainable pace, that principle that sits behind the Agile Manifesto of finding something that we can do week in, week out, remembering that our job is not done in a few days or a few weeks, but it’s often months and years to deliver. 

I’ve had more than one team rush. They started off and were eager. 

They were keen, and they went out of the gates way too fast. And at the end of a few Sprints, they were shattered; they were exhausted. They had been working too hard for too long already. 

And what happened? 

Well, they slowed down, and they slowed down more than they thought they would; they practically stopped. 

They’d gone too fast. They had produced low-quality products. Whenever they tried to make changes, bugs appeared, and problems arose. They then have to fix those before moving forward. They have to spend time fixing problems that they created because they were going too quickly. 

Because they weren’t aiming for the highest good or ultimate achievement. 

How did they solve this? 

Well, they slowed down even further, they resolved the problems, and they kept the focus on creating value for the customer. 

How do we do this for the long term? Not now? Not tomorrow, but the same next month, next year? 

Creating a sustainable pace where they can deliver and they can deliver well. 

Understanding that we work towards some version of the ultimate good, we will encounter obstacles and the principle the Obstacle is the Way becomes a natural consideration.

The Obstacle is the Way

The Obstacle is the Way is a Stoic concept that encourages individuals to perceive obstacles and challenges as opportunities for growth, learning and progress. It emphasises the idea that the various obstacles we encounter can become the path to success. 

This concept aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting adaptability, resilience and continuous improvement. Agile approaches embrace change and uncertainty, acknowledging the obstacles inherent in complex work. By embracing the principle, the Obstacle is the Way, Agile practitioners develop a mindset that allows them to approach challenges with determination and resourcefulness. 

Agile values, such as individuals and interactions responding to change, and delivering value, are reinforced by the principle the obstacle is the way. Agile teams actively seek solutions to overcome obstacles, collaborate to find innovative approaches and respond flexibly to changing circumstances. 

The Obstacle is the Way aligns with the principle of continuous improvement. It fosters a growth mindset, encouraging individuals and teams to reflect on obstacles, learn from them, and iterate on their processes and approaches. Embracing obstacles as opportunities for improvement and growth enables Agile practitioners to enhance their skills, teamwork, and overall outcomes. 

The Obstacle is the Way aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting adaptability, resilience, and continuous improvement. It empowers Agile practitioners to view obstacles as catalysts for growth, learning, and innovation. By embracing this concept, Agile teams can navigate challenges more effectively, seize opportunities for improvement, and deliver value with increased confidence and success. 

When I think of the obstacles is the way I can think of many, many examples, as I’m sure you can, where the obstacle has become the path. 

One that stands out is in a sprint review, where we had, time and time again, encountered problems – the same people from earlier with the test environment. 

And in doing so, we struggled, we struggled to deliver not only well but what we’d said. 

And this became interesting. 

The team reported in, I think, the third review in a row the lack of test services had impacted their ability to deliver. They had spent the best part of half a sprint as a team fixing service. 

And in raising this and accepting that this was a problem, they got help. 

There was a senior vice president in the room; he heard the problem. He didn’t like the problem. And he, unlike people in the team, unlike me as the coach, or the managers around the team, had the power to do something. 

It was a great opportunity. It is one that took courage to seize. But they seized it. 

In doing so, that senior vice president stepped up to the challenge. He resolved the issues in the test environment because he also, as it turned out, owned that service. And he could; it was within his power. 

That turned into a great review, not because we had lots to demonstrate, we didn’t. We had very little to talk about. 

But we resolved a key problem, one that had been bugging this team, by facing it and accepting that this was an opportunity as an organisation to grow. 

The principle of the Obstacle is the Way challenges us to overcome adversities with resilience and resourcefulness. The concept of Ego is the Enemy reminds us to set aside our ego-driven desires and embrace the process of the path of growth and learning presented by those various obstacles.

Ego is the Enemy

Ego is the Enemy is a Stoic concept that encourages individuals to recognise and transcend the negative influence of ego-driven desires, attachments, and self-centeredness. It emphasises the importance of humility, self-awareness, and the willingness to set aside personal agendas for the greater good. 

This concept aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting collaboration, servant leadership, and a focus on collective success. Agile approaches emphasise the value of individuals and interactions over processes and tools, encouraging team members to collaborate effectively and prioritise the needs of the teams and stakeholders above personal ego. 

Ego is the Enemy also aligns with the values of openness, transparency, and continuous improvement. It encourages Agile practitioners to embrace feedback, remain receptive to diverse perspectives, and constantly learn and grow. By recognising and taming the ego, Agile teams can create an environment of trust, psychological safety, and shared ownership, which leads to higher levels of collaboration, innovation, and success. 

The Ego is the Enemy concept aligns with the Agile value of delivering value to customers. It encourages Agile practitioners to place the needs and satisfaction of customers above personal ego-driven desires, ensuring that the focus remains on creating products and services that truly meet customer needs and provide value. 

Ego is the Enemy aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting collaboration, servant leadership, openness, and customer-centricity. It fosters an environment where individuals set aside personal egos for the greater good of the team and customers. By embracing this concept, Agile teams can enhance collaboration, innovation, and the delivery of value, ultimately leading to the overall success of their work. 

Now we’ve all worked with somebody who puts their ideas above others. That self-centred one in our team, who can’t see that other people’s opinions or perspectives are valid. 

Above all, they insist on their own ideas being implemented. 

Have a think about them; what’s the impact they’ve had on the teams you’ve been a part of or seen? Is it good? 

Invariably, in my experience, it’s not. 

I have worked with those people. 

And some of them have been brilliant. 

And still, it’s not good. That self-centeredness, that ego coming through, closes down conversations. 

A fair few years ago, I worked with a developer who was truly brilliant, one of the best in his field. He had invented things that we rely on, day in and day out. And he knew it. He knew he was good. 

Therefore he wasn’t willing to engage in conversation with anybody else, with us mere mortals. And what that did was it stifled innovation. People stopped sharing; they stopped doing things. 

Because what’s the point? 

We always had to defer to this one developer. So we may as well just let him make all the decisions. 

What that led to, as it turned out, was a not-very-good product. 

There was no innovation because there was no disagreement and conflict navigated, and therefore, options and ideas that we played around with. 

We just built what this one person said. And we built a bland product. 

It wasn’t innovative. It wasn’t even particularly good. Because his expertise, his excellence, didn’t extend to usability. It didn’t extend to the business problem. 

It was about the technical. 

What I learned from that was you can have brilliant people in your teams, and they are an incredible benefit. 

But there needs to be humility, that recognition on their part: that brilliance isn’t enough on its own. Ego is going to be the enemy. 

And as we begin to understand that we may be our own worst enemy, Journaling becomes a sensible practice. Taking time to cultivate self-awareness and detach from the influence of our ego to foster introspection and personal growth.

Journaling: Reflecting on Progress and Growth

Journaling, from a Stoic perspective, is a practice that involves self-reflection, introspection, and capturing thoughts and experiences in writing. Stoics embrace journaling as a tool for self-improvement, self-awareness and philosophical inquiry. 

From an Agile perspective, journaling aligns with the principles of self-reflection, continuous improvement and collaboration. Agile encourages individuals and teams to reflect on their work, learn from their experiences and seek ways to enhance their processes and outcomes. By incorporating journaling into Agile practices, practitioners can deepen their understanding of their own thoughts, emotions and actions, leading to greater self-awareness and personal growth. 

Journaling also aligns with Agile’s values of openness, transparency, and learning. It allows individuals to document their insights, observations and lessons learned, contributing to a collective knowledge base within the team. By sharing journal entries and engaging in reflective discussions, Agile teams can foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Journaling promotes clarity of thought and facilitates effective communication. Agile practitioners can use journaling to organise their ideas, document important information and articulate their thoughts more effectively. This can enhance collaboration, improve decision-making, and improve overall outcomes. 

Journaling from a Stoic perspective aligns with Agile principles and values by promoting self-reflection, continuous improvement and effective communication. It enables individuals and teams to deepen their self-awareness, foster a culture of learning and enhance collaboration and decision-making. By incorporating journaling into Agile practices, practitioners can cultivate a growth mindset and strengthen their ability to deliver value in an Agile context. 

And I have to be honest, I don’t do this. 

I never claimed to be a perfect Stoic. 

I’ve had coaching on journaling, but I despise it. 

But I know it’s good. I know it works well. 

So much so that when I work with others, I will invariably tell them to journal and to take time out. 

Maybe you’re a scrum master, and you’ve just run a retrospective, and it’s gone amazingly well or badly. Take time out; reflect on it. 

A journal is a good way of doing that. Sit there and think: What did I expect was going to happen? What actually happened? Why do I think there was a difference? What can I learn from this? And how would I do it differently next time? 

Not only taking time to think but taking time to write that down will give you that clarity of thought. It will help you in the moment to become better in your role. 

Also, in the future, it will be in black and white. You can read it, see where your thinking was, and learn from yourself, from your past. You can also see how you’ve improved over time. 

As I said, journaling is not for me. There are many ways of doing it, and I’m still playing around with them. Writing doesn’t work for me. But it’s worth considering. 

It might be for you.

Conclusion: Embracing the Winds of Change

By integrating Stoic practices such as journaling, Premeditatio Malorum, Amor Fati and Sympatheia into the Agile mindset, we create a powerful synthesis of ancient wisdom and modern approaches. 

These practices enhance our ability to navigate challenges fostering collaboration and cultivating resilience. 

By reflecting on our experiences through journaling, preparing ourselves mentally with Premeditatio Malorum, embracing our fate with Amor Fati, focusing on what is within our control with Dichotomy of Control, recognising our interconnectedness with Sympatheia and taming our ego with the Ego is the Enemy, we elevate our Agile practice to new heights. 

These practices instil in us a deeper understanding of ourselves, our teams, and the world around us. They guide us to approach our work and interactions with wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.

The alignment between Stoic philosophy and Agile practices offers us a profound opportunity to elevate our Agile mindset and approach by integrating Stoic virtues such as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. 

With Stoic practices like journaling, Amor Fati, Dichotomy of Control, and Sympatheia, we can transcend the boundaries of conventional Agile frameworks, tools, and techniques. 

I encourage each of you to embrace the Stoic principles and practices, not merely as theoretical concepts but as a way of life. 

Let us strive to be mindful, self-aware, and compassionate Agile practitioners. Let us cultivate resilience, adaptability, and a sense of interconnectedness with our teams and stakeholders. 

I urge you to experiment with these ideas, question the status quo, and challenge the limitations of Agile thinking. Embrace the unknown with openness, view obstacles as opportunities, and tame the ego that inhibits our growth. 

Seek wisdom, cultivate courage, find balance, and uphold justice in your interactions. 

Remember, Agile is not merely about frameworks and processes. It is a mindset, a way of being. 

By integrating Stoicism and its timeless wisdom into our Agile journey, we can transcend the limitations of frameworks and techniques, unlocking our true potential as Agile practitioners and as human beings. 

Together, let us forge a new path. Guided by the ancient wisdom of Stoicism and the innovative spirit of Agile. Let us create a future where Agile principles and Stoic virtues intertwine, empowering us to navigate the complexities of our ever-changing world with grace, purpose and ethical excellence. 

Seek wisdom, cultivate courage, find balance, and uphold justice in your interactions. 

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