Candy Corn: An Agile Guide to Effective Practices

The 2023 fiscal year has started, with the potential to focus on new budgets across U.S. government agencies. It is also the beginning of what I like to call “candy corn” objectives, in which we perform a lot of busy work across late nights, feel good about it, but only later realize that our accomplishments are few and far between.

I think “candy corn” is a great way to describe some of these tasks we perform. But please don’t take that as a negative: I love candy corn and have since I became a fan around eight years old. An informal survey among my teammates concluded the same result – most of us love candy corn. Of course, you always have your naysayers who challenge the cone-shaped treats as “too sugary,” “too chewy,” or “of no nutritional value at all.”

This last point I cannot argue. A clip from 2017 reveals – surprisingly – that candy corn contains no corn whatsoever. It does not contain anything deemed nutritional, except maybe sesame oil, which is high in vitamin E, but that’s about it. So, unless you have a Vitamin E deficiency, an overdose of candy corn will probably not promote any positive health benefits. Yet even as I write this, I’m still thinking about downing a few, just for sport.

Let me bring the metaphor back to work. We spend much of our day performing tedious tasks that may have little overall benefit, but we complete them anyway because we should, or in doing so we feel good, productive, and accomplished. These “candy corn” tasks can take up our time, but they lack the nutritional value that leads us to productivity.

Agile software developers also talk about productive versus “candy corn” tasks – substituting the terms “effectiveness” and “efficiency.” Effectiveness is the ability of people to produce the right results that will lead to the right outcome. It focuses on useful and valuable product features and delivers positive results to users. On the other hand, efficiency is about producing a product with less effort and a smoother process. Efficiency is about the way we build things overall, not necessarily whether the item is wanted or needed in the first place. (To learn more about effectiveness vs. efficiency, take a look at this video)

Efficiency without effectiveness is like candy corn: you will start downing them on a whim, but what you get back has no nutritional value.

You can, of course, go the opposite way and be effective without being efficient. Many innovators spend their lives trying to come up with solutions without necessarily having a process. Thomas Edison, one of the great inventors of the early 20th century, famously said, “I never once failed at making a light bulb. I just found out 99 ways not to make one.” His determination led to a disruptive outcome with a product that people needed and, consequently, are still using more than a century later.

I am not suggesting that efficiency is less valuable than effectiveness or does not have its place. Just like candy corn, efficient work can be gratifying, the agile mindset merely promotes that employees should promote effectiveness over efficiency when given a choice. In other words, would you prefer to focus on the right product that requires time to create versus building something that may be easier to get out the door but is not what the customer wanted?

After all, I will still eat my candy corn this Halloween. But right after, I will pledge to be more effective in my lifestyle. I will start eating more balanced foods, exercising regularly, and cutting down on TV. That’s how agile practitioners practice their craft, and I will do the same…just as soon as I get past Thanksgiving. Or probably Christmas. Or New Year’s. By then, certainly, I should be ready to lay off the candy corn.

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