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Agile in the Mainstream

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Mainstream Agile is an idea whose time appears to have arrived. Larger consulting services firms are now touting "agility", with firms like IBM Global Business Services and Cap Gemini pitching Agile-related service offerings. Offshore firms like Cognizant and ITC Infotech are also active in the Agile software and services space.

Mainstream Trends

A quick scan of the online job sites shows a remarkable increase in the use of the term 'agile' in job descriptions. Here is a sample of the data changes in roughly one year, from the job sites and

Term found in Job Listings Dice, July 2009 Dice, April 2010 Growth
Agile 2084 4088 96%
Scrum 755 1222 61%


Term found in Job Listing Monster, July 2009 Monster, April 2010 Growth
Agile 1756 3031 72%
Scrum 379 755 99%

Given this kind of sudden mainstream popularity, what does it mean for Agile in general? What does "mainstream" Agile look like? What's in mainstream Agile? Scrum is the most popular Agile framework. As such, it is a good focal point for discussing mainstream Agile. So, what does mainstream Scrum look like?

According to Martin Fowler of ThoughtWorks, Flaccid Scrum is the new pandemic. The pattern has three steps and looks like this:

  • They want to use an agile process, and pick Scrum
  • They adopt the Scrum practices, and maybe even the principles
  • After a while progress is slow because the code base is a mess

According to Fowler:

...projects get into trouble for poor internal quality all the time, the fact that a lot crop up under Scrum's flag may be more due to the fact that Scrum is so popular at the moment then anything particular to Scrum.

Now here is where it gets interesting. Fowler says:

I always like to point out that it isn't methodologies that succeed or fail, it's teams that succeed or fail. Taking on a process can help a team raise it's game, but in the end it's the team that matters and carries the responsibility to do what works for them. I'm sure that the many Flaccid Scrum projects being run will harm Scrum's reputation, and probably the broader agile reputation as well.

Mainstream Meaning

What does this mean regarding the "mainstreaming" of Agile? It means that Scrum as a term may become meaningless over time, as organizations who claim to be doing 'Scrum' are in fact doing something else, and callng it Scrum. Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber have a name for it: they call it Scrum-butt.

Fowler has a term for the "watering down" of a previously well-formed definition - he calls it Semantic Diffusion:

Semantic diffusion occurs when you have a word that is coined a person or group, often with a pretty good definition, but then gets spread through the wider community in a way that weakens that definition. This weakening risks losing the definition entirely - and with it any usefulness to the term.

In response to the trend, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, co-creators of Scrum, have created a definitive and authoritative definition of Scrum, called the Scrum Guide. This freely downloadable resource describes Scrum. The document is intended to strengthen and sustain the Scrum definition. According to Ken Schwaber:

Scrum has been used to develop complex products since the early 1990s. This paper describes how to use Scrum to build products.

A excellent discussion of the Scrum definition appears on Dominique Stender's blog post on Ken Schwaber's "Confusion about Scrum". In that post he echoes Martin Fowler's stand on semantic diffusion:

I also agree with Ken that it is required to have one (!) formal description of what Scrum is. As [Ken] points out, in application Scrum is mixed up with other agile approaches such as Kanban, XP and others. This makes it important to have one (!) "master copy" of what is Scrum and what is not Scrum. A benchmark is required.

Mainstream Agile: Of Products and Product Owners

The "mainstreaming" of Agile may mean that Scrum as defined by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland is even more polarizing than ever. Even as Agile goes mainstream, the co-creators of Scrum are in fact hardening the definition of Scrum. What is going on here?

Case in point: the current Scrum Guide states that the Product Owner is "always a single person, never a committee." Others in the blogosphere are talking tough now about Product Owner problems in Scrum implementations. For example Roman Pichler of InformIT writes in an article on Product Owner problems:

A product owner committee is a group of product owners without anyone in charge of the overall product. There is no one person guiding the group, helping to create a common goal, and facilitating decision-making. A product owner committee is in danger of getting caught in endless meetings with conflicting interests and politics - something also referred to as "death by committee." No real progress is achieved; people stop collaborating and start fighting each other.

Always ensure that there is one person in charge of the product, an overall or chief product owner who guides the other product owners and facilitates decision-making, including product backlog prioritization and release planning.

The "mainstreaming of Agile" seems to be setting up a need for a very clear definition of terms. The term 'Scrum' is being actively defined and sustained by Scrum's founders, via the definitive Scrum Guide. What the term "Agile" actually means is becoming more and more important, as Agile goes mainstream and becomes more subject to semantic diffusion.

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