Like many people, I am a design and architecture enthusiast. Last week I had the pleasure of giving a keynote presentation at the Nordic Project Zone Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Most of the attendees were from Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland) and the conference was hosted at a Scandic Hotel. I also met a number of presenters who consult in these countries as well as the US, India and the remainder of Europe. Amongst them there was a common consensus that Scandinavian countries adopt agile practices well, and there is a close alignment between agile values and prevailing cultural values.
I discussed this alignment a little with Thursara Wijewardena who was presenting on “Making Agile Work on Virtual, Physically Dispersed and Diverse Teams”, she commented that many Scandinavian companies have flat hierarchies and a high regard for employee respect/empowerment which fits well with the values agile aim to instil.
With it being my first visit to a Scandinavian capital, I was also impressed by the minimalist design approach apparent at our venue. “IKEA inspired” is the wrong term, since this was all high-end furniture and fixtures, but to anyone not familiar with Scandinavian design it helps capture the idea of the sleek, stripped to its core form and purpose style. To me it seemed no surprise that a culture used to pairing everything back to its minimal form, would take to agile that also looks to “maximize the work not done” and use “just enough” and “barely sufficient” documents and constructs.
As an example, my hotel room looked bare upon entry, a low bed, a thin wooden chair and desk; clean, Spartan, efficient. The phone was a small, thin handset slotted in the wall; the bathroom shower had no stall and emptied onto the tiled sloped floor. Even the toilet seat was thin, narrow and just enough to cover the bowl. No waste basket, just a plastic bag clipped to the wall on a wire, the coffee cups had no handles.
It was all an impressive display of continuous simplification and removal of waste. You could imagine the designers asking “Why do we need a frame?”, “What can we remove still further?”, “How do we making it cleaner and simpler?” No wonder agile is a natural fit for the Scandinavians, simplification, refinements, and elimination of unnecessary structure seems to be baked into their DNA or at least introduced into many of their lives and homes at an early age.
After first revelling in this pursuit of leanness, after about 3 days at the hotel, sleeping on the thin low bed, sitting at the sleek wooden desk on the hard narrow chair, using the sharp toilet seat and wet bathroom floor (from having no shower cubical, not the toilet!) it all became a bit uncomfortable. I wanted a comfy chair, larger bed and things to keep stuff separated. Maybe living in North America that often appears the opposite of barely-sufficient design and more like unsustainable-opulence had made me soft, but I wanted some comfort too.
Then I wondered if anyone missed the comfort removed from project processes and what we build. Are lean approaches uncomfortable, do people miss the luxury of having system features they don’t really need? Are we forcing people to use sharp toilet seats by Asking Why Five Times, writing light documents and only developing features with high business value? I don’t sleep well when I travel so maybe I was just delusional, but I had never considered the downside of barely sufficient until experiencing it physically.
My thoughts were cut short when I moved to Budapest to teach a 2 day Agile Project Management course and stayed in a fancy 5 star hotel. Budapest features incredible architecture in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque styles (amongst others) with amazing details and accoutrements with fractal qualities where even the decorative knobs have decorative knobs on them.
The buildings are beautiful to look at and must have taken ages to create, the antithesis of minimalist design and a beautiful legacy.
By comparison are we building in Lego instead (a Danish invention, of course), are our designs, blocky, bland and bare? Does the practice of iterative simplification to both process and product change what we create? Are the systems we build through short iterations of simple design and process more akin to Montreal’s Habitat 67 complex?
Has the art of grand designs and ornate detail been stripped away and is that good or bad? Is there a place for decoration and luxury in systems design or am I just still jet lagged? Let me know if you think I’m onto something or just on something.