The Night Sky and the Tea Koan

As a coach, there are a number of stories that I usually talk about to my new teams to help them understand what my job is all about.

One I like to use with teams that think they already know agile is one I call “the night sky” which I based on my own personal experience. It goes something like this; when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs, I frequently played games outside with my friends at night. Sometimes we would look up at the sky and try to identify those constellations we knew. Most often we found the big and little dipper, but our limited knowledge (and limited view) allowed for little else. Nevertheless, to me this was the night sky.

Much later in life I had the opportunity of spending some time in rural Idaho. When I looked at the night sky there, I could not believe what I was seeing. I thought that it could not be real. Before my very eyes were stars I had never seen and the milky way galaxy. The one striking moment I had to change my whole worldview (at least in respect to what I thought the night sky was).


I tell my teams that the same is most likely true of their current understanding of Agile. While they have seen the “night sky” they have not seen the “night sky” as I have seen it and I ask that they please listen because, if they do, they will see and experience more than they thought was possible.

The other story along the same vein that I share with them is a Zen Tea Koan which goes something like the following:

A zen master received a university professor who desired to become a Zen Master.

The zen master served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The same is sometimes true with the teams I teach. Many times they must first empty their heads of per-existing notions of Agile before I can teach them a more productive approach.

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