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Technical Practices, Systems Thinking, and Culture Matter in Agile Adoption

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Simplicity, feedback, communication, respect and courage, these eXtreme Programming (XP) values still inspire the team of the XP Days Benelux 2013 conference. The program of this conference consists of 2 days of sessions covering many aspects of agile, like testing and development techniques, customers and planning, individuals, teams, processes and continuous improvement.

InfoQ did an interview with two of the conference hosts, Merlijn van Minderhout and Pascal Van Cauwenberghe, about new developments in agile, successful agile transformations and the needs of European organizations in agile adoption.

InfoQ: Which new developments do you see happening in agile communities? Why are these developments happening? Do you know what is causing them?

Pascal: It may be confirmation bias, but I see more sessions about XP technical practices and working with legacy code. We’ve gone through a period of “rapid development” where technical excellence has been neglected and now those “agile” projects grind to a halt due to “technical debt”. It’s good to see that more and more people become conscious of the fact that you can’t stay agile if you don’t keep your code malleable.

InfoQ: There are tracks at the conference on technical subjects, teams and individuals, processes and also on customers and planning. If an agile transformation needs to consider all of these areas, wouldn’t that make it very difficult to plan and execute?

Pascal: Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes and that’s why you need a systemic approach (systems thinking, complexity thinking, theory of constraints…) to guide you: to understand the system and to see where the leverage points are. It’s not a single “plan and execute” but an endless loop of understanding, devise a change, perform an experiment, review. That’s why the organization behind XP Days is called “Agile Systems”: Systems Thinking + Agile to build agile systems.

InfoQ: We sometimes hear about agile transformations that have not been successful. Do you know the reasons why they failed? And what can be done to increase the chance of success with agile adoption?

Merlijn: Although many agile practices have very simple starting points, a agile transition is not simple. As indicated in the previous question and answer it involves many areas. That is where the complexity comes from and when things become complex, mistakes will be made. And actually making mistakes (or failing, preferably early and often), is key to effective learning and improvement. Many organizations stop at the point of failing in stead of taking it as a new starting point.

InfoQ: Is agile adoption different in Europe compared to other continents? Are there specific needs of organizations in Europe, or different approaches that are use by agile coaches in Europe?

Merlijn: I already see many differences within Europe and even within one country. A company’s culture has a big influence on how to approach the change to agile. Think of openness, tolerance to mistakes, is someone allowed to speak up etc. I would even say that the company culture has more influence on success of agile adoption than a particular location in the world. Of course often a company culture is strongly related to a country’s culture.

InfoQ: The XP Days Benelux conference covers more than XP, I also see sessions covering Scrum, Kanban and organizational change. Did you ever consider changing the name of the conference?

Pascal: yes, we consider that every year. It’s become kind of a ritual. And we always reach the same conclusion (until now): the “XP spirit”, the XP values are still important to us. Those values inspire how we organize XP Days: simplicity, feedback, communication, respect and courage. Courage to report on what doesn’t work; courage to be open and try new things; courage to acknowledge what we don’t know (yet); courage to push the boundaries, to always try to do better, to not stagnate in comfortable conservatism. And at the end of the day, you don’t build systems with Post-its. Excellent technical practices are a prerequisite for sustainable agility.


The conference will be held on November 28-29 in Mechelen (Belgium). XP Days Benelux is supported by Agile Systems, a non-profit whose goals are to build up and disseminate knowledge and experience related to agile methods and systems thinking. InfoQ covered the XP Days Benelux 2012 conference with news items about the first day sessions and the second day session.  

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