Working Agile

Can the story of King Arthur be a lesson in Agile?

Everyone knows the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. While there is little historical evidence for the legend’s accuracy, it is a beautiful story. And as is often the case in traditional stories, the content is always slightly exaggerated, which made the legend takes on mythical proportions. It is precisely this exaggeration that makes the story fun and educational at the same time. In this article, we explore the exciting similarities between the Arthurian legend and agile working. We still think we can learn something from it.

In the legend of the Round Table, around 515 A.D., King Arthur gathers the best and bravest knights from the land at his round table. He did this to defeat the Saxons. An association of all nobles was necessary. The common goal led to an unusual and unique collaboration, certainly for that time.

The special thing about the Round Table was that all knights had an equal say. Everyone was heard and everyone’s opinion and expertise was taken into account in the final decisions. In addition, a number of rules were drawn up that the knights had to obey. For example, the knights were not allowed to commit violence or manslaughter, never be involved in treason, never be cruel, and not use violence against ladies, noble-wives and widows.

To say that King Arthur is the medieval founder of agile working goes a long way. Nevertheless, there are a number of interesting similarities between agile working and the method of the Round Table that we would like to take a closer look at.

Remarkably enough, being able to defeat the Saxons requires a new approach in which the established order, a motley mixture of landlords and knights fighting each other, must really work together for the first time. The “organisation“ is completely transformed. A big change.

In the agile transformations that we regularly supervise, we see that the new way of working is a major change as a result of the need to work differently or rather more agile. In addition, a “team” is formed in which all team members have equal say:

All expertise of the Knights who took place at the Round Table is heard and decisions are made on that basis.

Agile teams are set up in a way that everyone takes an equal position based on trust. Teams are preferably multidisciplinary, which, together with equality, ensures that everyone can offer added value from their own perspective.The team makes a decision, not the manager.

At the Round Table, a number of rules are drawn up that everyone must adhere to, regardless of the circumstances. This goes so far that King Arthur had to prosecute his own wife, Guinevere, for adultery.

Although not always pleasant, it is important within agile teams to make clear working methods and corresponding agreements. This is the only way to achieve your goals. Not only should teams agree about the more obvious rules of the game, but also about behavioural agreements: how do we treat each other and how do we make sure everyone obeys to the rules and agreements?

The knights at the Round Table shared common goals: to seek and find the Holy Grail and to defeat the Saxons. These common goals bind the knights for a long time and cause them to subordinate personal goals.

Having a so-called “northern star” is also important for agile teams. Of course we strive for agility, but a direction (which can also change) or a “dot on the horizon” is necessary. Not only for the direction to be determined, but also for a common feeling.

The formation of the Round Table and the accompanying code of conduct arose from the realisation that the “old“ way of living and working was no longer adequate. The killing and looting by knights only led to lasting division and increased violence. To stop this, something drastic had to change. The Knights of the Round Table committed themselves to a (for knights) new code of conduct, which was then also propagated to the rest of the community in which they lived.

Emphasising what the new behaviour is we like and especially its translation into what this means for individuals and their day-to-day work is an important success factor for real behaviour change. The clearer it is what exactly is expected of an agile team member, the faster new behavior will also be introduced. Continuation through joint commitment or guidance and monitoring helps.

A proper motivation to achieve something is when something is absolutely necessary to master it fully. The motivation of King Arthur and his knights was to keep the Saxons out. There was no other way, so the need and challenge was urgent. Only because of this they were able to observe and act on the unusual code of honour for that time. Even if it is a little less convenient.

And the results of the “agile act” were there: King Arthur and his knights indeed managed to keep the Saxons out. In 516 A.D., the Saxons were finally defeated at the Battle of Badon. When Arthur dies around 542 A.D., according to the legend, the Round Table falls apart. Although the Saxons were temporarily kept out under the control of Arthur, they later found solid ground under their feet. King Aethelbert became an important king who also introduced Christianity and forced it on the then pagan Britons.

Arthur’s story teaches us that agile working must be preserved. Doing agile sometimes gets watered down, whereafter old habits return. By paying attention to being and remaining agile, it is certainly possible to make change take root. On the one hand, this means that you must continue to pay attention to the new way of working. You have to track down and name old behavior. Close the doors on this front. Moreover, when learning new behavior, it is important to replace old temptations with new positive possibilities (comparable to dealing with recognisable addictions). This way you prevent a relapse to old times.

Had more attention been paid after Arthur’s dead to the permanent perpetuation of the working methods of the Knights of the Round Table, the Saxons would probably never have succeeded in penetrating the British Empire.