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Maybe Agile Is the Problem

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Key Takeaways

  • Many organizations are Agile fatigued 
  • The “Agile Industrial Complex” is part of the problem
  • Agilists must go back to the basics and simplicity of the Manifesto and 12 Principles
  • The Heart of Agile and Modern Agile are examples of basic, simple frameworks
  • Agilists have much to learn from social sciences such as Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, and Solution Focus

“Agile agile Agile agile agile agile Agile agile.” 

A mantra? Not really, though it may induce an altered state of consciousness. 

“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?” (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Maybe, depending on who you ask.

These are homonyms. Words that look and sound the same but have different meanings. Like this grammatically correct sentence composed of three very different words: “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” (Dmitri Borgmann, Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought).

The risk in over-homonymization is that words begin to mean anything and everything until they mean nothing. This is a psychological phenomenon known as “semantic satiation.” Coined by psychologist Leon James, “semantic satiation” is a form of mental fatigue:

It’s called reactive inhibition: When a brain cell fires, it takes more energy to fire the second time, and still more the third time, and finally the fourth time it won’t even respond unless you wait a few seconds…if you repeat a word, the meaning in the word keeps being repeated, and then it becomes refractory, or more resistant to being elicited again and again.  

Today “Agile” means anything and everything. Increasingly, it means nothing. Many organizations are “Agile” fatigued and refractory, or resistant, to “Agile agile Agile agile agile agile Agile agile.” 

It gets worse. “When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom” (Confucius). In some organizations, “Agile” has come to mean “command-and-control management.” Kent Beck voices the dismay of many who know better:

I was in South Africa at Agile Africa and somebody came up to me and said, ‘We want to do software development but we just can’t stand all this ceremony and this Agile stuff. We just want to write some programs.’ Tears came into my eyes…How can it be that we’re right back where we were twenty years ago? (Personal Correspondence, Quoted with Permission). 

That’s a good and important question. And raises other important questions, like “Where do we go from here?” Ron Jeffries’ recently posed one very real possibility for consideration

It’s time to try something new, and here it is: Developers should abandon ‘Agile’…I really am coming to think that software developers of all stripes should have no adherence to any ‘Agile’ method of any kind. As those methods manifest on the ground, they are far too commonly the enemy of good software development rather than its friend. 

Wherever we go from here, let us begin by conceding that many of us Agilists are part of the problem. As Pogo famously said to Porkypine, “We have met the enemy and he is us” (Walt Kelly, Pogo). Martin Fowler put it this way at Agile Australia 2018: 

…the Agile Industrial Complex imposing methods upon people…is an absolute travesty. I was gonna say ‘tragedy’, but I think ‘travesty’ is the better word because in the end there is no one-size-fits-all in software development. Even the agile advocates wouldn't say that agile is necessarily the best thing to use everywhere. The point is, the team doing work decides how to do it. That is a fundamental agile principle. That even means if the team doesn't want to work in an agile way, then agile probably isn't appropriate in that context, and [not using agile] is the most agile way they can do things in some kind of strangely twisted world of logic. So that's the first problem: the Agile Industrial Complex and this imposition of one-best-way of doing things. That's something we must fight against. 

The Agile Industrial Complex. Dark Agile. Faux Agile. Zombie Agile. And it gets even worse. So says an organizational psychologist friend:

Agile is a virus, spreading across the enterprise. And you shouldn’t be surprised by the growing resistance. Because that’s what antibodies naturally do when an antigen invades. (Personal Correspondence)

Huh?

That’s what it feels like: an invasion. Because your business transformation ‘experts’ know surprisingly little about organizational dynamics and the psychology of change. One blatant instance: do you realize how much resistance you instantly create—on multiple levels—when you declare somebody a “Master?” Especially when the only mastery they have is of a two-day training event! (ibid.)

Oh. I dared not tell her the “Coach” is also declared after a two-day training event. I recently heard one of these “coaches” asked, “It must take a very good project manager to make Agile work?” 
“Yes, a top-notch project manager, iteration manager, Scrum Master, whatever you want to call them, who speaks softly but carries a very big stick!” 
Tears came into my eyes. 

One of my clients, after exploring the vast certification landscape, created his own. And dozens of Scrum Masters and Product Owners proudly display it in their work spaces: Agile Yahoo. 

Where do we go from here? 

Domestic Policy—Inside the Agile World 

Domestic policy is a broad and comprehensive strategy, or a specific plan, or even a simple principle for managing affairs at home. 

In the era of Agile expansion—business transformation—let us, first, clarify what we mean by “Agile agile agile.” 

To state what should be obvious, here is a simple principle to live by: Anything “Agile” must explicitly or implicitly reference the four values and 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto (https://agilemanifesto.org). It must contain Agile “clues.” 

We must go back to the future, back to the basics, back to the fundamentals. Agile needs a reboot. “Agile” teams should revisit the Manifesto and 12 Principles on a regular basis: What does it mean? How are we doing? How can we continue moving in this direction?

Part of what it means is continual pruning of our own “Agile” practices if they are to remain Agile. “Simplicity is essential” (The 12 Principles) is an Agile “clue” and we must drink our own Kool-Aid. 

It really is this simple, says Dave Thomas:

Find out where you are. Take a small step towards your goal. Adjust your understanding based on what you learned. Repeat. 

Similarly, Alistair Cockburn’s Heart of Agile is an agnostic approach based on a simple framework: Collaborate, Deliver, Reflect, and Improve. Joshua Kerievsky’s Modern Agile is based on four simple principles: Make People Awesome, Make Safety a Prerequisite, Experiment and Learn Rapidly, and Deliver Value Continuously. 

Foreign Policy—Outside the Agile World

Foreign policy is a broad and comprehensive strategy, or a specific plan, or even a simple principle for managing affairs abroad. 

In the era of Agile expansion—business transformation—let us, second, clarify what we intend by “Agile agile agile.” 

When people groups, such as Agilists, set sail for other lands, cultures inevitably clash.  

Early Agile expeditions were characterized by gunboat diplomacy. Our conquest of Project Management, for instance, is nearly complete.
Now we are encountering strange new lands such as Human Resources and meeting people groups called Organizational Psychologists who have bigger certifications than we do.

What is our diplomatic policy? Do we consider ourselves raiders or traders? 

Let us beware of a naïve—and ultimately self-defeating—colonialism that presumes we are superior and the natives need to be enculturated for their own good—and our profit.  

Let us beware, conversely, our own assimilation, like the once fearsome Vikings who disappeared into the mists of legend. For example, I am part of a growing movement of Agilists around the world integrating Agile with Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, and Solution Focused Brief Therapy—see my article on Solution Focused Agile (http://sfio.org/the-journal/interaction-vol-10-no-2-january-2019/page-5/)).  At the same time, an increasing number of these “Agilists” are dropping “Agile” altogether as they are fully assimilated into other worlds. 

Our foreign policy across the enterprise is to work towards not a melting pot but a mixed salad. 

A simple Conflict Resolution Matrix illustrates this approach (adapted from here). Our stance is neither Competing (Agile wins) nor Accommodating (Agile loses) but Collaborating (the business wins). 

This is an example of the Medici Effect at work. Frans Johansson’s 2006 book, The Medici Effect, was a transformative influence on my thinking. The Medici Effect, named after a 14th century Italian family that sparked The European Renaissance, refers to the breakthrough thinking and disruptive innovation that often bursts out of the big bang collision at the intersection of diverse disciplines, cultures, and industries. This idea resonated with me because I had been conducting big bang experiments since I was a kid with a chemistry set. 

The Medici Effect answers a question that I am asked occasionally: Why do I rarely attend Agile events? Agile community is important. But The Medici Effect challenged me to continuously push beyond the boundaries of who and what I already know. And I quickly discovered that, for me, enlightenment and breakthroughs are more often sparked by interaction with military officers, religious leaders, poets, philosophers, biologists, and psychologists. Much of my life’s work has been connecting the dots between these related, sometimes unrelated, disciplines and experimenting with new and different ways of working. 

Conclusion

Inter-disciplinary research, principles, and practices are the future of Agile. And this makes it even more important that we stay connected to our roots as long as we continue to use the name “Agile.” No more “Agile Agile Agile Blah Blah Blah” please. 

About the Author

Maurice “Mo” Hagar, former CIO, is an enterprise Agile coach based in the USA. He has helped more than 60 Fortune 500 companies around the world accelerate organizational change, performance, and outcomes. His areas of expertise include Agile, Solution Focus, Strategic Foresight, and Design Thinking.

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Community comments

  • Agile Manifesto and Principles Born of Compromise

    by David Brower /

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    We must go back to the future, back to the basics, back to the fundamentals. Agile needs a reboot. “Agile” teams should revisit the Manifesto and 12 Principles on a regular basis: What does it mean? How are we doing? How can we continue moving in this direction?

    The problem is that the manifesto and the 12 principles are too fuzzy to prevent them being subverted for the purposes of command-and-control since they were born of compromises between the original signatories at their meeting in Snow Bird, Utah. Robert Martin has said as much himself.

    To quote Tom Gilb:

    The Manifesto Principles are so fuzzy that I am sure no two people, and no two manifesto signers, understand any one of them identically.

    But they are so fuzzy and sympathetic that they 'sound good'. Like 'Make America Great Again'.

    Personally I think anybody could have done a lot better (alone), but unfortunately a committee of diverse people, had to agree. So compromise is what you get. Lowest common denominator.

  • Re: Agile Manifesto and Principles Born of Compromise

    by Maurice Hagar /

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    Hi David. I'm okay with fuzziness because I prefer fit-for-purpose over prescriptive. My gripe is with more and more people and organizations doing "Agile" who know or care nothing about the Manifesto and Principles. Anything and everything is dressed up as Agile these days; it has become a trojan horse, a wolf in sheep's clothing, or whatever.

  • As usual

    by Aurelio Bautista /

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    There is a good idea, it calls to deep changes on ourselves. Then we will manage to delay and deform it in order to not to change. Then you have the prescriptors coming to tell us what to do and how to do. Even worst they will ask to pay for telling to us what we know but we don't really want to do. So everything changes in order that nothing changes.

  • An Error

    by Aurelio Bautista /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    And I notice that I sent the same post three times.

  • the Form

    by Aurelio Bautista /

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    Curious logic on the form management. I was asked to confirm my account parameters. The Google chart of gray on gray made me miss the ceckbox keep the same and every submit posted the same message again ... Did developper used an Agile approach for this ;-) ?

  • So are you promising never to write anything using the word Agile every again?

    by Larry Gryziak /

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    You're as Agile (agile) as you want to be.

  • The biggest thing missing

    by Bas Groot /

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    What I never hear anyone say, but what I see all the time: Agile is a carte blanche for postponing hard stuff. It stacks technical debt, fast and high. Because we focus on reducible, deductible and demoable problems. And when that stack topples, that's when it gets politicized and we're back at square one in every bad way.

  • Favorite Quotes

    by Maurice Hagar /

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    TS Eliot: "Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure."

  • Re: Agile Manifesto and Principles Born of Compromise

    by Maurice Hagar /

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    My Favorite Quotes below was meant to be a response to this post Aurelio. I agree.

  • Re: The biggest thing missing

    by Maurice Hagar /

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    Bas, not if done well but, alas, yes, too often.

  • Re: So are you promising never to write anything using the word Agile every

    by Maurice Hagar /

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    "So are you promising never to write anything using the word Agile every again?"

    How did you get that out of the article? I'm for reclaiming it not abandoning it.

  • Re: The biggest thing missing

    by Bas Groot /

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    If executed very well, Agile works very well. I know first hand. But Agile requires very experienced, competent and brave people. It relies on the top-10% of the talent pool to function, which essentially is covert elitism. Like: "we can be equal and self-steering because we're all champions". For the other 90%, Agile rituals form a great cover-up for shortcomings, allowing them to fester invisibly. I would care to manifesto a better method that allows for a bigger part of the talent pool to contribute meaningfully. But I'm left with an unsolved puzzle: how to nullify the damaging influence of office politics? Because the biggest harm is done by the managerial roles on the outskirts of the agile team. Roles like the Scrum "Master" who does not like to be the team's errand boy to fight against Management on their behalf, and has a much easier life with more honor and power when being the Management's micromanagement tentacles into the Agile team.

  • I don't recognize Agile any more

    by Bruce Rennie /

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    I've been working in software for nearly 35 years. For the last 20 I've worked with Agile teams. I don't recognize Agile any more.

    When we started, it was about making life better for the people that created the software. With Extreme Programming it was "yeah, let's focus on that stuff that WE know is important": quality, clean code, taking time to clean up when things got messy. And recognizing the things we all knew were true: That customers frequently changed their minds so creating huge, long term plans was often a waste of time.

    Now it's exactly what the article said: An Agile Industrial Complex. Most of the Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches I speak with these days have never been software developers. How can that possibly work? The focus has shifted from developers to executives, mostly because executives can pay those sweet, sweet consulting contracts. And Scrum Masters/Agile Coaches measure themselves based on how many LEGO games they know as opposed to understanding the problems their teams are facing or researching new CI techniques or, God forbid, even being able to demonstrate how to write a good unit test. Hell, Atlassian is even offering a Jira Administrator Certificate aimed at Scrum Masters, for **** sake.

    I want to say to developers that, for some of us at least, it used to be about actually helping you guys. I don't blame you if you don't believe me.

  • Re: I don't recognize Agile any more

    by chandra Naraya /

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    100% agree with you, Bruce. Now a days people who have not touched a line of code make all decisions in software and make the life hell for good developers.

  • What can go wrong?

    by Jeff Hain /

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    I think that the "ideological scapegoat" cognitive bias (*) applies here, at least to the title: "agile" is maybe trendy, but that's not by itself the cause of these issues.

    There seems to always be people smart enough to build parasitic power structures on top of anything (but more like some kinds of ideological viruses or tumors, rather than parasites, which can sometimes also live on their own), and others naive enough to fall for it, or vile enough to take advantage of it.

    Maybe the "agile manifesto" could have had better antibodies against managerialism (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Managerialism), and could have been harder to use as an excuse for the reported malevolent practices.

    At QCon 2016 Martin Thompson advised, when considering code, to always ask: "What can go wrong?" (www.infoq.com/presentations/engineer-practices-... 42m40s, practice from Todd Montgomery).
    The same question should also be applied when designing a manifesto.

    (*) By that I mean: attributing the crimes conducted by political systems only to the very specific (yet usually quite vague) ideologies their leaders pretended to apply, instead of to deeper and more general attributes of (human) nature (that could explain why such nefarious cultures or ideologies regularly arise). I didn't find it in, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases, so I coined that name.

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