The Agile Pilgrim

Agile continues to be a buzzword. This durable adjective shows up in my inbox applied to strategy, marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, and cooking, in addition to its more established focus on software and systems development.

This would seem to have nothing to do with the Camino de Santiago, a venerable pilgrimage walk, but read on. The Camino refers loosely to a family of treks ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Historically, it was a pilgrimage. For some it still is. Others do it for sightseeing, exercise, adventure, curiosity, and as other motives as there are walkers.

A Camino can range from 100 km (the minimum required to get a Compostela – an official certificate of completion) to 800 km (from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France). For those with more time and tougher feet, even longer Caminos are possible.

The route takes one on trails, paths, and roads through forests, meadows, cities, and towns. Some of the way is hilly, some flat. The path can be rough or easy under foot. You may encounter rain, wind, heat, cold, and fog. The scenery and townscapes can be beautiful, monotonous, ugly or intriguing. There is no Yellow Brick Road, but stylized blue and yellow route markers abound.  You don’t know who or what is around the bend. It may be a fountain with refreshing water, nonpotable water, no water at all, or in at least one case, wine. Delightful days can be punctuated by long slogs.

Eating and sleeping are part of the adventure, especially on days where you’re not sure where you’ll end or get to the village you planned, but find no available rooms. They can be at cafes and restaurants, pilgrim hostels, or hotels. These are incredibly varied. Some are outstanding, some poor, a few you just don’t want to stay at. Most are inexpensive to moderately priced, some simply accept donations. Rarely, I have found myself in some village after dark with no place open or available.

In these and many other dimensions, the trip itself is amorphous and ambiguous. Some parts of the trail invite one to linger, others to keep on without pausing. Walking hundreds of kilometers, the mind as well as the body wanders. Among these wanderings is the notion that pilgrimage and product development are more similar than you might think.

A project such as a trek or a new product can seem, ex ante, simple or at least straight forward. Functional specifications for a defined market or starting point and final destination. In the case of a trek, get to the starting point, walk until you arrive to the defined finish point, declare the goal attained, and you’re finished. Yet the number of tasks, decisions, and risks multiply quickly.

Hmmmmmm, starts to sound like we’re still in the office.

These include:

  • How far to go and when
  • Team members or solo
  • What to carry
  • What to wear
  • Budget of money and time
  • What range of conditions to prepare for
  • Where to stay
  • What to do about injuries
  • Budget – implicit or formal and explicit
  • Most importantly, what do you derive from weeks of putting one foot behind the other
  • Go as part of a group/team or solo
  • Whether to go at all
  • My feet hurt, it’s been cold raining for three days, what am I doing here?

As in many version 0 products, simplicity is a good, though not the only, choice. A meme along the Camino is a depiction of a medieval pilgrim. He wears a cloak and sandals, carries a walking staff, drinking gourd, and small money pouch. Without backpack, change of close, or extras of anything, our prototypical pilgrim traveled light and relied on the hospitality of monasteries or churches for food and shelter.

For the contemporary trekker, options range from planning down to the kilometer and hour to just showing up improvising a response to whatever you encounter. If the goal is to check this trip (or product feature) off your list, the first option may be the most efficient. If the goal is to maximize the experience and serendipity of trip, plan less.

An agile approach is more volatile. You will end up staying at both unexpectedly funky yet satisfying places, meet a wider cast of characters, have a broader variety of meals and encounter more not in the guidebook. In effect, you respond to the feedback and demands of the environment.

There are down sides. The resources for your project may be yanked just as on your trek, It could get dark, cold, and rainy with neither food nor shelter in sight. In the case of the Camino, the risks have been worth it.

Agility is recommended to optimize the experience, if the risk of failure is acceptable (to whomever stakeholders have the most votes.)

There is certainly a place for unagile in both product development and adventure. One doesn’t do agile development on, for example, a power plant.

Unagile travel is vividly chronicled by the recent film, Free Solo
The “pilgrim,” in this case climber Alex Honnold, chooses to climb the more than a thousand meter vertical rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without the support of ropes or other safety equipment. Physically, Alex is supremely agile, yet he accomplishes his climb, by meticulously planning and rehearsing, until he has virtually memorized every step of the mountain.

Whatever you do, enjoy the walk. As they say in Spain, and perhaps should at product meetings – ¡buen camino!

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