Top Ten “Non-Agile” Books for the Agilist

Agile is (should be) about thinking differently.

Agile is (should be) about thinking differently. That’s what I’ve always loved about it.

The people who have been involved in reshaping the software industry through the agile movement inspire me. Not because they tell me they have all the answers, but because they readily admit that they don’t, that I need to explore widely and form my own opinions, contribute my own ideas. There’s an excitement in the feeling of obligation to make your ideas known. You want them to be good, to be original.

Trouble is, if you read only from popular agile literature, you’ll only get a popular agile perspective in forming your outlook.

Top Ten “Non-Agile” Books for the Agilist

So here’s a list. My favourite agile books that won’t be found in the everyday agile library or Google search.

These books were not written with the agile audience in mind, but the ideas to be found in them can influence and guide you as much as texts from Cockburn & Poppendieck (and on and on…). They contain wisdom on behavior, persistence, psychology, systems and process. They share small insights and big ideas, true stories and conceptual proposals. All of them are gold.

They’re a little left of centre and if you’ve read (or end up reading) any of them, I’d love to know what you thought. You might even like to tip me into something you’ve read that struck a chord, but doesn’t spring to mind as an “agile book”.

10. The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential (by Tony Buzan)


What is it?
Everybody knows what a mind map looks like. Idea in the centre of a page, surrounded by an expanding series of tentacles, decorated with words and sketches. A mind map is one of those things so familiar and simple that you never think about its invention. That’s what makes its invention brilliant. Tony Buzan’s stroke of genius (just ask him) is a lesson in idea visualization.

Why Read it?
Work visualization is big in agile teams. From story slicing to card walls, getting an idea out of your head (so that you can play with it) is a skill that’s practical and easy. Mind mapping is a great exercise in that.

9. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot (by John Muir)


What is it?
Before his death in 1977, John Muir reinvented DIY books, with a revolutionary approach to teaching backyard mechanics. First published in 1969 the book known to VW lovers as “The idiot book” is filled with gorgeous hand drawn cutaways and diagrams, alongside step-by-step instructions for fixing your bus or beetle. Whatever model you have, this book shows “procedures” for everything one might imagine, from changing wiper blades to dropping and stripping an air-cooled engine.

Why read it?
Do you really want to help people? Really? Do you speak to them that way? Do you teach practices by exploring them from the perspective of those that will use them? Do you adapt those practices for the exact situation faced by your audience, offering slight variations, right off the bat? John Muir does. Or did. Muir’s goal was to write a book that could be used by a friend of his wife to fix her own car. Everything is explained in a way that encourages you to “have a go”. Instructions include cigarette breaks and the index contains the word “Love”. Muir is able to set an atmosphere in which learning happens calmly and enjoyably. Not a book for car lovers alone, a book for lovers of teaching as an art.

8. Mega Memory – Audiobook (by Kevin Trudeau)


What is it?
If you were in your formative years in the early 90’s, you’ll remember Kevin Trudeau’s infomercial, pushing his “Mega Memory” tapes. Trudeau would “memorise” the names of all the live audience members, hearing each name just once. I loved it. As for the tapes, well it’s the author’s story is the really amazing thing. A TV pitchman for products as varied as baldness cures, weight loss programs and speed reading courses, he’s just (Mar ‘14) been sentenced to 10 years jail for dodging a $37m fine for, well being dodgy. The Mega Memory ads themselves were eventually banned, because of Trudeau’s claim that they offered more, or different memory techniques than basic memory association, something that has been known for years. They don’t . The tapes teach basic association.

Why read it?
You’re agile, you’re busy and the manifesto told you there’s supposed to be less documentation. Couldn’t you use a better memory? Alright, I’m a little jestful in putting this on the list, but I’m fascinated with this man and the thousands of people who have parted with money for his questionable products. Truth is though, Mega Memory is hilarious, and it works (a bit). The results are a long way from the author’s promise of a “photographic memory” (another claim that had Kevin in legal hot water), but if you can keep a straight face it’s gold. The man himself rattles on (and on) about how to tie a person’s name to a ludicrous movie scene playing in your mind so that the moment and name are embedded in your brain. If you actually follow along, you’ll find that you’re indeed able to remember things in that way. It’s not revolutionary and it needs practice, but it’s real enough. Of course, then you’ll stop doing that, like a sensible person. Other techniques described too, all in Trudeau’s charming, infectiously enthusiastic (patronising, childish ……) way. I highly recommend the Mega Memory tapes (not the system necessarily), but please don’t buy it. If ever there was a justifiable pirate download, this is it.

7. What the Dog Saw: and other adventures (by Malcolm Gladwell)


What is it?
Bashing Gladwell’s books (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) as pseudo science fad novels seems to have become an international blogging pastime of late, but I’m sticking fat. After all, I’m part of a pseudo science fad agile movement and the man tells a good story. This book is a collection of Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions to The New Yorker, covering topics far and wide, all told in the author’s popular and entertaining style.

Why read it?
For the stories. If you coach or are into organisational change, you’ll no doubt use story telling to get folks moving. You’ll love the tale of Ron Popeil, inventor of history’s most successful kitchen appliance (the “ Ronco Showtime Rotisserie”!) iteratively developing his creation using fish tanks in his own kitchen. Lean startup freak? Learn how a build-learn-measure approach shaped the American mustard industry. There are chapters with names like “The Art of Failure”, “How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job?” and “The Talent Myth – Are Smart People Overrated?”. Intrigued, aren’t you…..

6. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner)


What is it?
A book that for many, introduces the very idea of economics as a means of exploring and explaining the everyday. Throughout, the authors offer economic studies and experiments that seem to answer (or contradict accepted thinking on) questions we’ve all pondered. Why would a person choose to become a drug dealer? How much of my parenting matters in the long run? Sometimes criticised for popularising controversial alternative theories (such as the idea that legalised abortion can reduce a region’s crime rate years later), Freakonomics is for that very reason a reminder that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. We need to look deeper.

Why read it?
How do you measure team performance? Statistical control and the right metrics can be of enormous value to the improvement efforts of agile teams and organisations, but only if we are able to view the collected data objectively. Levitt and Dubner are able to portray a hero in the economist, a number crunching truth seeker who will not rest until the real meaning behind a phenomenon is known. It becomes enviable! By adopting the Super Economist mindset, we can better place ourselves to observe and agile system or environment, keeping an open mind to what’s really going on. You’ll feel encouraged to turn a problem around a few more times before choosing a direction. It’s an easy walk through the connection between statistics and sociology, something that will help you to make better decisions with your teams.

5. Seeing the Forest for the Trees: A Manager’s Guide to Applying Systems Thinking (by Dennis Sherwood)


What is it?
OK, a bit of a cheat because this is a management book, but it’s still not strictly from the agile sphere. In this book, Dennis Sherwood helps us to understand systems thinking, as it applies to an organisation. Suitable for a complete systems thinking novice, the author first guides the reader through the basics with easily visualised examples, building on these simple concepts as the chapters progress. The topic is hard going, but the Sherwood is gentle without being patronising, educative without sounding scholarly.

Why read it?
This book has you (systems) thinking from the get go. From the first chapter, Sherwood asks that you keep pencil and paper handy, encouraging you to take pause every now and then to perform an exercise related to a real world problem that you face, or a system you’re familiar with. For the agilist, the idea of causal loop diagrams (detailed in the book), and their ability to illustrate the influences on a system are gold. These gems might be used for personal understanding (eg.: which part of the org/system should a coach focus on) or in a group scenario (like a P.I.R. or a W.I.P. limit discussion) and their elegance will strike you.

4. The Coach (by Ric Charlesworth)


What is it?
It’s hard to think of a more successful person than Ric Charlesworth. Largely unknown (I’d imagine) outside of Australia, Charlesworth has performed as a 5 time Olympian (Hockey), 10 year federal politician and a two time Gold Olympic Gold Medal coach. He’s also a Dr. of Medicine, and opened the batting for Western Australia’s Sheffield shield side (winning that 3 times). You read a coaching book written by Ric Charlesworth.

Why read it?
There’s a reason that Ric Charlesworth has been so successful. Dedication. His book outlines the level of commitment that he expects in his teams. He pushes them hard, working from the his assumption that they wish to be great. That’s often not the assumption we make in management. High performing people seek a challenge and Charlesworth has made an art of finding (hiring!) and challenging individuals that perform in a team environment. World Champion type teams. Do you know anyone that could use a bit of that? Make no mistake, Charlesworth is feared by his players, but clearly loved in equal measure. He instills in them an attention to detail and a commitment to excellence that becomes the culture. The best you can do, every time. No hacks.

3. How to Win Friends & Influence People (by Dale Carnegie)


What is it?
There are a few books that can be said to have sparked a literary genre, but this is one that could stake such a claim. First published in 1937, this is Carnegie’s advice for those wishing to develop a rapport with people, especially in the early stages of a relationship. Written in the wonderfully wordy prose of its day, the book encourages the reader to adopt a selfless attitude in establishing relationships, to focus on other people, their needs and desires, holding that as the key getting them to like you. Thousands of copycat texts have followed, but none can claim a title so spectacularly simple and bold in claim!

Why read it?
Empathy is not an unspoken tenant in agile. It starts with “customer collaboration over contract negotiation” and moves right through team exercises like the Retrospective. If you think that you are good at seeing things from another person’s point of view, there’s every chance you haven’t read “How to Win Friends & Influence People”. It’s filled with pointers that will make you better able get your ideas across, while being open to those of other people.

2. On the origin of species (by Charles Darwin)


What is it?
Needing no introduction, “On the origin of the species” (1859) is perhaps the most important book ever written. Charles Darwin’s simple explanation of the existence and variety of all the world’s life forms is beautiful, humble, colourful and respectful. It’s also an adventure story, Darwin supporting his theory with observations from a time when he and his peers would regularly record the discovery of a “new” species, travelling the globe on the Beagle. The theory (of course) is that of evolution. Well, “Natural Selection” as Darwin called it (only one variant of the word “evolve” appears in the original text – the very last word in the book!).

Why read it?
Darwin starts by hinting that Natural Selection should be obvious. By offering that horse and pigeon breeders were able to improve their stables by “selecting” the better examples of their stock for breeding, it should follow that such a process might happen naturally, allowing the ascendency of species most adaptable to change. Like it or not, your organisational culture and practices are evolving. Whether you observe the evolution or not does not change the fact. As an agilist, you must seek to create an environment in which the best ideas emerge and survive, the most adaptable and team appropriate practices proliferate. Reading this book will give you confidence in self organisation as a way of natural selection, with some selective breeding of course!

1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (by David Allen)


What is it?
Getting Things Done is about taking a systematic approach to personal productivity, taking stock of the things that stress you out and working your way through them with confidence. It’s documented common sense, a simple idea that has developed a huge, cult like following. The original GTD book was released in 2001. Being written before smartphones and coud-sync, the book persists because it does not insist or rely upon a tool set. David Allen’s system works as well with pencil and paper as it does with an iPad.

Why read it?
You will not be the first in agile to be inspired by GTD. The parallels between the behaviors and artifacts we encourage in software teams and the personal disciplines Allen teaches are striking. Time boxed planning, rapid useful estimation, visualisation, MVP prioritsation. GTD will make your life a daily set of agile exercises that keep your head straight. This book is the Sgt. Pepper album for personal productivity geeks.


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Adrian Fittolani

About the Author Adrian Fittolani

Adrian Fittolani is the General Manager of content at Envato.