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Is Agile the Kowloon Walled City?


The Kowloon Walled City once stood in the heart of Hong Kong, a phenomenon of human ingenuity and resilience. I only observed it out the window of my jet as I have flown into the region on many trips, but I have always seen it as mystical. It stood out as an anomaly to everything around it—something that feels very similar today.


Known for its dense population, labyrinthine pathways, and self-sustained community, Kowloon was more than just a chaotic settlement; it was a testament to adaptability, innovation, and the power of community. On the surface, comparing this urban anomaly to the Agile methodology might seem far-fetched. However, a deeper look reveals that the values that kept Kowloon thriving are strikingly similar to those that drive Agile teams. Let's discuss how Agile and the Kowloon Walled City had similar traits.


Resilience

In the cramped corridors of Kowloon Walled City, residents faced numerous challenges. Buildings rose haphazardly, creating a dense, multi-level maze with minimal natural light and ventilation. Despite these obstacles, they thrived by making their systems and solutions, demonstrating incredible resilience. Similarly, Agile teams are built to respond to change instead of following a fixed plan. They embrace challenges, adapt quickly, and find innovative solutions, embodying the resilience that kept Kowloon alive.


Innovation

Kowloon was a hub of creativity. With limited space and resources, residents engineered complex networks of pathways, plumbing, and electrical systems to maximize their living conditions. The city was a vertical village, where every inch was utilized ingeniously, from rooftop gardens to hidden shops within narrow alleys. This spirit of innovation is mirrored in Agile, where teams engage in iterative development, continuously experimenting, learning, and improving their products. Just as Kowloon's residents innovated to optimize their environment, Agile teams constantly refine their processes to enhance efficiency and outcomes.


Community-Driven Evolution

The sense of community in Kowloon Walled City was palpable. Without formal governance, the city evolved based on its residents' collective needs and inputs. The people living there all drove its schools, clinics, and businesses. This community-driven evolution is at the heart of Agile, which thrives on collaboration and communication within and across teams. The trajectory of an Agile project is shaped by continuous feedback and the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders, mirroring Kowloon's organic development.


Self-Organization

Kowloon functioned through the self-organization of its inhabitants despite the absence of formal planning. Residents managed their affairs, establishing informal rules and networks to maintain order and support. Agile teams, too, are self-organizing, making decisions collectively and determining how best to accomplish their work. This autonomy fosters a sense of ownership and accountability, driving teams to achieve their goals efficiently and effectively.


Flexibility and Adaptability

The residents of Kowloon had to be incredibly flexible and adaptable, finding creative solutions to everyday challenges in their unique environment. They used every available space and adapted buildings to suit their needs as the community grew. Flexibility and adaptability are core principles of Agile. Teams must be ready to pivot and adjust their approach based on feedback and changing requirements, ensuring they remain aligned with their goals and deliver value continuously.


Downfall and Destruction

Despite its remarkable adaptability and self-sufficiency, the Kowloon Walled City faced challenges. Over time, its lack of formal governance led to problems. Sanitation became a significant issue, with inadequate waste management and poor living conditions. The tightly packed structures and narrow pathways created safety hazards, including fire risks. Eventually, the city's resilience and adaptability became its downfall. 1993, the government intervened, citing health, safety, and urban planning concerns. The entire city was demolished, displacing its residents and ending its unique experiment in self-organized living.


Learning from Kowloon's Downfall

The downfall of Kowloon Walled City offers valuable lessons for Agile teams. While self-organization, resilience, and adaptability are crucial, they must be balanced with attention to sustainability and scalability.


Agile teams can learn from Kowloon's experience by:


  • Maintaining Sustainable Practices: Ensuring rapid development and iteration do not compromise the project's long-term sustainability.

  • Addressing Technical Debt: Regularly refactoring code and systems to prevent the buildup of technical debt, similar to how Kowloon's infrastructure issues became insurmountable over time.

  • Balancing Autonomy with Oversight: While self-organization is key, having a level of oversight and governance can prevent the chaos that ultimately led to Kowloon's demolition.


What We Need to Keep

Imagine an Agile team working in an environment inspired by Kowloon Walled City. Their workspace is a bustling hive of activity, characterized by:


  • Collaborative Hubs: Small, informal meeting areas where team members huddle to discuss and brainstorm, reminiscent of Kowloon's communal spaces where residents gather to solve problems and share ideas.

  • Flexible Workspaces: Desks and workstations are arranged organically, changing to accommodate different tasks and teams. This reflects the adaptable nature of Kowloon's living spaces, which evolved to meet the residents' needs.

  • Innovation Corners: Areas filled with whiteboards, sticky notes, and prototypes, where continuous improvement and experimentation happen, akin to the inventive spirit seen in Kowloon's intricate, self-built structures.

  • Community Boards: Spaces where feedback and ideas from stakeholders are posted, fostering a sense of community and shared purpose, much like the communal decision-making in Kowloon, where residents collectively shaped their environment.


Last Thoughts

While Agile and Kowloon Walled City exist in entirely different realms, their values—resilience, innovation, community-driven evolution, self-organization, and adaptability—are remarkably similar. In its structured yet flexible approach, Agile captures the spirit of what made Kowloon Walled City a remarkable example of human ingenuity and community resilience. However, the lessons from Kowloon's downfall remind us that balance is essential. By visualizing Agile as the Kowloon Walled City, we gain a deeper appreciation for the methodology's ability to foster environments where creativity, collaboration, and adaptability thrive while also being mindful of sustainability and governance.


Call to Action

What aspects of Agile remind you of the unique qualities of Kowloon Walled City? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments below. But you need to become a nuAguilty member to comment, and you are in luck because basic membership is free.

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