Radical Thoughts

Last week I was fortunate to attend the Agile 2012 conference in Dallas, TX.  My experience there was very positive, with learning and great conversations. The biggest thrill for me was finally meeting in person many people whose work I admire.  (A full review of the event is a different post.)

I did note something surprising, even shocking: We in the Agile community are no longer radical.

Agile Manifesto WordleRadical Then

The Agile Manifesto was radical to the software development world in 2001. In contrast to the engineering paradigm prevalent in the industry at the time, ideas like “Working software over comprehensive documentation” looked crazy.  Thankfully the original practitioners, signers of the manifesto or not, were persistent in creating small successes that have led to more and more adoption.  We now have the ability to dispel many myths and objections with success story and data.

Controversial Thoughts About Agile

I heard some controversial things at the conference.  Things like:

  • The Product Owner role is broken.
  • Scrum doesn’t scale.
  • Systems thinking trumps Agile.

These ideas are interesting, even emotional.  It seems some in the Agile community are sincerely and strongly questioning the Agile Manifesto. I think this is a good thing, overall.  We should be looking at improvements as we go.

I don’t think these “contra-Agile” ideas are radical on the same level that the Agile Manifesto was when it was created.  In fact, I saw some things at the conference that are decidedly conformist to current business notions.

Radical Now

I was fascinated by the parts of the Agile Manifesto that are still radical and still neglected.  In fact, before we spend too much energy “attacking” the Agile Manifesto, I think we should spend time actually implementing it! Let me explain what I mean with just one example.

The sixth principle of the Agile Manifesto states:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

Yet when I was walking around the vendor and sponsor booths at Agile 2012, you’d think distributed and dispersed teams were part of Agile!  Here at THE Agile conference the vast majority of the tools were about simulating or compensating for the lack of face-to-face communication. Scroll through the list of sponsors yourself to see what I mean.

Ah, people will say that the reality of business today is distributed and dispersed team members. Oh no, they will say, we can’t change this reality. I have no doubt the original pioneers of Agile have heard all of these same arguments. And they still persisted to get as far as we already are.

And yet, today, we have a whole industry within the Agile community built around a violation of a main tenant of the Agile Manifesto. Agile is radical but the idea of structuring our organizations to truly work face-to-face is just TOO radical, evidently.

We could look at other parts of the Agile Manifesto and see that we have a long way to go before most companies have even given Agile a fair try.

  • Infrastructure, organizations and products are designed to make early delivery impossible, let alone continuous delivery.
  • Many teams working to be Agile still work behind change control boards and rigid budgeting processes that restrict change.
  • Absent Product Owners and absent business subject matter experts are common.
  • Burndown charts and other data are used to pressure teams instead of trusting teams.
  • Progress is still measured many, many ways other than by measuring working product in the hands of users.
  • Working overtime toward burnout is commonplace.

I could go on and on.  The Agile has supposedly gone mainstream but we have so far to go before most people using the terms of Agile are actually working that way!

The Radical Truth

The truth is that we have only had the Agile Manifesto for 11 years.  The truth is that most of the Agile community is not ready to try controversial ideas like eliminating the Product Owner role. The truth is we still haven’t applied the basics of Agile on a wide scale!

As Vince Lombardi pointed out to the then wallowing Green Bay Packers:

Let’s start at the beginning. This is a football. These are the yard markers. I’m the coach. You are the players.

Let’s look at ourselves, our teams and our organizations at where we are with the basics. This is the Agile Manifesto. These are the principles. If you aren’t following them, don’t go off doing harder, fancier, more detailed stuff or looking for tools as a panacea. Let’s finally work on getting the basics solid first.

That would be radical indeed!


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