Monday, April 7, 2014

Discord in Agileland

I've seen a lot of blog posts and articles circulating about how horrible the state of Agile has become. The central theme to these is that the term "Agile" has moved away from the principles that they established to the practices that are commonly used by "Agile" teams and organizations. I'd like to gently suggest that we not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Look, I totally get it. I really do. A quick glance at my own blog's history will tell you that I'm a huge advocate of sticking to the Agile principles and paradigm. Adopting practices, techniques, frameworks, or methodologies without internalizing the Agile Manifesto and its Principles is an exercise in diminishing returns (if any). However, it's also very difficult to ascertain how well an organization has internalized Agile into its culture. Like the saying goes, "The proof is in the tasting of the pudding," meaning that Agile teams do, in fact, behave differently because of how they've internalized Agile.

Theological Agility
"You will respect the sacred parchment" -- 5 reasons Agile is like a cult
One of the better blog posts that I've read on the subject was written by Dave Thomas, one of the Agile Manifesto's original signatories. In "Agile is Dead (Long Live Agility)", he writes, "Once the Manifesto became popular, the word agile became a magnet for anyone with points to espouse, hours to bill, or products to sell. It became a marketing term, coopted to improve sales in the same way that words such as eco and natural are. A word that is abused in this way becomes useless—it stops having meaning as it transitions into a brand."

People have exploited the agile brand to push their own agendas, that's for sure. All too often these days you meet someone trying to sell a practice or approach who can't name more than a couple of the Agile Principles (if any). I have personally trained people on Agile who had "heard so much about it", yet had never heard of such a thing as the Agile Manifesto.

So yes, we do need to work on getting back to our roots. However, that does not make all practices and approaches evil. This way of thinking is way too theological for an approach that must be practically applicable.

Making a living off of changing people's lives is not a crime against Agile. Furthermore, there are some practices that have existed for long enough that I would consider a team to be un-Agile or a low-maturity Agile team if they weren't doing them.

By their Fruits
By their fruits ye shall know them - Agile Teams have Agile practices, produce quality value, and are happy!
In his blog post "The Corruption of Agile", Andrew Binstock writes about the evils of building a brand off of Agile. He states that teams can be doing Agile practices without being Agile, and they can be Agile without doing Agile practices. My confusion is: how do you know a team is Agile if they aren't acting Agile? Practices such as TDD and Continuous Integration enable the team to deliver the values stated in the Agile Manifesto and its principles. If a team's not doing them, what are they doing to get there? Do they inspect and adapt on a regular basis? Are they striving to deliver something to their customers every 2 weeks to 2 months (with a preference for the shorter timescale)? How do you know they are Agile if their practices aren't Agile?

Agile practices can be a good gauge for a team's Agility. I do not advocate their use as the only metric of Agility, but they provide a good starting point for assessing a team. If a team is using Scrum and has implemented TDD and Continuous Integration, it's going to take a fair amount of convincing for me to believe they aren't "Agile", for how did they get to that point if they weren't continuously improving? Perhaps they were Agile at one time and had grown stale, but there is certainly evidence that they were at least Agile at one point in time.

Keep an Open Mind
Do we need to focus on our roots, the foundation of Agile culture that will breed lasting success in our teams? Absolutely! Our people should be consistently reminded of what it means to be Agile to ensure they are adapting towards greater Agility instead of away from it. Are people who introduce practices, approaches, and techniques that enable and empower a team to become more Agile inherently evil? Absolutely not! A team that understands what Agility is can tell when someone's trying to pull one over on them versus a person who genuinely has their best interests at heart.

I love going to conferences and learning about the latest and greatest in the Agile world. I love being a part of a community that is so obsessed with making people's lives better. I love the healthy debate and pragmatism that comes with experience. And I loathe those who are clearly pushing their own agenda without a reality check or an understanding of what Agile is really all about. I think it's time we took a more measured approach to our criticism, understanding that not all Agile consultants are wolves in sheep's clothing; indeed, more of them than you think are just trying to make the world a better place.
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