Agile Tools and the Importance of Physical Interaction

There is in interesting discussion on Daniel Markham’s blog about the Tyranny of the Tools in relation to Agile software development. In a nutshell, “throwing so-called ‘Agile’ tools at development team does not make it Agile”; it’s the ways for thinking and learning which are truly important.

I agree with the position taken in some of the comments that *some* things are better computerised. I do believe, however, that ‘techies’ too often forget or undervalue the corporeal aspect to human experience, and end up missing out on opportunities for learning and understanding based on interaction with the physical, 3D world, rather than just the 2D world of the LCD screen.

As I mentioned in the discussion, any experimental psychologist would agree that embodiment is a crucial part of learning (and consciousness) in humans. The act of walking to a physical Scrum or Kanban board to move a post-it to complete a task is likely an important part of the learning process, which clicking a link in a web tool can never replace.

Here is a book in which the author discusses embodied consciousness, bridging philosophy and neuroscience (although it’s a bit out of date now):

I think Github is an interesting case, and I am inclined to think that it works very well for what it needs to do (highly distributed software collaboration), but I’d argue that using Github for a co-located team would be missing a trick, because you could get better collaboration through more immediate, physical means (board on the wall, etc.).

An extreme case of this would be something like – a virtualised Lego design tool. My bet is that using real bricks is *much* more effective than virtual bricks in terms of learning and conceptualising. A quick search brings up this paper from a few years ago: Learning Through and About Design” which touches on some of these themes (including the need for multi-sensory learning – Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic, or VAK).

There are obviously challenges in keeping learning activity hands-on (literally) when your teams are not co-located (although there are success stories, such as ThoughtWorks Distributed Agile), but before you jump to implement a shiny web-based “agile” tool, consider whether you could make any changes to your team composition or working environment to improve the fundamentals of learning and software development with simple, accessible tools: white boards, post-it notes, spreadsheets: anything which does the job.

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