Kent Beck, who created extreme programming, or XP, as a team-based methodology for producing high-quality software, was surprised to find his ideas embraced by nontechnical managers as well. “People would tell me that their salespeople started to pair up,” says Beck, referring to the XP practice of two coders sharing a single computer.
The book’s profile among nonprogrammers began to surge after a 2005 New Yorker article featured a food company’s attempt to develop a healthful, delicious cookie using XP principles. Want to try it? Here are three XP ideas any start-up can steal.
1. No-Tech Communication. XP prizes simple communication, which in practice means “the least technology possible,” says Beck. At Menlo Innovations, a custom software firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, every employee in every department communicates with paper, pushpins, yarn, and sticky dots, which they plaster across walls to chart the course of their work.
“In companies, there is so much pain between the business side and the technical side or the front office and production, or management and the line staff,” says Richard Sheridan, Menlo’s co-founder and CEO. “Beck showed us how to break down barriers by creating a common language with the simplest possible tools. Yes, there are technology-based ways to do all this. But this way works better for the humans.”
2. Informative Eavesdropping. Beck writes that an observer should be able to walk into an XP workplace and suss out what’s going on in 15 seconds. Luxr, a San Francisco-based company that makes coaching products for start-ups, has an open office where almost everything happens in public.
“Eavesdropping and overhearing are encouraged and how we keep informed about things,” says founder Janice Fraser. Employees make decisions among themselves and pin relevant notes to the wall. Everyone is expected to absorb what’s going on and to ask questions if he or she misses something. As a result, meetings are virtually nonexistent. “Anytime you have to pull 30 people into a room to get them up to speed, that is profoundly wasteful,” says Fraser.
3. Personal Feedback On Demand. Continuous improvement is impossible unless you know what works and what doesn’t. That requires feedback. XP stipulates regular feedback on code quality, but of course the practice also benefits processes and employee performance. At Menlo Innovations, for example, any employee at any time can convene a lunch meeting at which colleagues offer input on her strengths and weaknesses.
At Luxr, Fraser solicits team feedback after every 60-day planning session. She has winnowed by 75 percent the time those sessions take and improved the accuracy of the company’s estimates. “By building in feedback,” she says, “we’ve been able to take this big hairball and reduce it to something manageable.”
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan