Agile, a Gorilla four letter word

“No, no, no, no. You’re doing it all wrong. For the love of Peet, it’s an easy process to follow.”

Eric shrugged. “Yeah and we found that it wasn’t working with our schedule cycle so we tweaked it.”

I rolled my eyes, “Look, the system works, we just have to trust the system.” I glanced down at my watch. “Look, I have to prep for my next meeting. Can you close the door when you leave.”

Eric blinked, shrugged and walked out of my office. As the door shut I leaned back in my chair with a deep sigh.  It was taking so much work to make the team more efficient. If only they’d just see this was the way to an easier path. Well, at least I’d gotten management to cough up money for training. The entire project had nearly fell face first into the chasm because the CFO had heard productivity increase and rushed us straight towards agile, ignoring all my “people need training” reminders. Our first pilot was nearly our last when nobody had a clue what they were doing.

I rubbed my temples. I’d had to work fast on that one, pulling together a cost benefit analysis to prove that spending money on training would gain us more improvement than going back to the old development model. Leaning back in my chair I stared at the ceiling. Now if I could just get the teams to stop playing around and do things right.

“Why not left?”

I really need to change the lock on that door.

“You don’t have a lock on the door, how can you change it?”

I really need to put in a lock, and then change it. “What do you want, Hogarth?”

“Why does everyone want to do things ‘right’? Couldn’t we try doing it left for once.”

I was about to tell Hogarth that he was making no sense, but then I thought better. Whenever I did, he always made me look like an idiot by then making complete sense. Sigh… “I want to do it the right way, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.”

Hogarth sauntered across the room to where a large philodendron sat. Pulling a leaf from the plant, he took a large bite before turning back to me with a sour look on his face. “You know, I much prefer the fichus.” I just gave him a baleful stare. Tucking the half eaten leaf back into the pot he settled down against the wall. “The way it’s supposed to be done,” he repeated.

I just nodded.

“Question, isn’t this release going like gangbusters? Don’t you expect to ship in half the time and with a much higher quality?”

I nodded, a note of pride slipping into my voice. “Yes.”

“Then why are you worried about being right? It’s working, isn’t that the most important thing?”

“But they’re not following the process!” I snapped in frustration. “If they just followed the process, it would be so much better.”

Hogarth scratched the back of his thread as he asked, “Remind me again, the first principle of agile is what?”

I peered at Hogarth in confusion. “Really?” He just gave me a “humor me” shrug and stared at me. Sigh, “all right. The first principle of agile is ‘Individuals and interactions over process and tools.”

“Uh huh… And how are you doing with that?”

Blink, blink… Sigh. I really hate it when he’s does that.
Has Agile become a four letter word?

Worse than that, is it a three letter word? Is agile in danger of becoming the next Management Fad? Nothing is worse than being placed in a bucket with such Fads as “Business Process Reengineering.” You know, the Fad that said if we make the process better, even a bad team will improve?

Shudder…  We don’t want that, do we?

Well guess what? It’s happening. I think this tweet sums it up all to well:

Is it me or are there a lot of people drinking the #agile #scrum kool aid? How bout just focus on being effective? #agile #scrum #pmchat – @tonybruce77

This worry isn’t anything new. Nearly as long as the Agile Manifesto has been around there have been people calling it a Fad. On top of the typical Fad drivers, there are disturbing trends inside of the agile community that are just as harmful.

Here are a three viewpoints.

  1. Poor adoption of agile has driven us into the chasm: Back in Feb, 2011, Agile Focus posted a blog on agile falling in the second chasm. It argues that “there is a vast army of supposedly Agile teams and companies that have adopted the look and the lingo while totally missing the point.

I tackled this Gorilla back in “Indiana Gorilla and the lost artifacts of agile.” It is certainly an issue, and one that is not unique to agile. If you have $100,000 racecar, but the driver can’t drive a stick, then he might declare the car useless. This point argues that it might just be that you need to train the driver. The inverse also applies. Many companies have “tried” agile, only to mark it as useless because of poor implementation. If you don’t read the manual, you to can end up bumbling around like the Greatest American Hero.

My Soapbox: Agile isn’t a get rich, quick scheme. You can’t toss in a few standups and call it good. It’s a cultural shift. A set of beliefs and ethics that require a company to change more than just how it tests. You don’t do this overnight and you don’t do it without training. To get better, you have to invest in getting better.

  1. That’s not agile! You’re doing it wrong!: Mike, over at Leading   Answers, created the Periodic Table of Agile Adoption.  While Mike posits that, like the real elements, there is no good or bad Agile adoption I’d point out that you really don’t want to get Cesium anywhere near water. And like real elements, there are elements of the agile community that are a little explosive when they perceive you as “watering down” pure agile.  On the Agile Periodic Table, there are some fairly vocal and forceful Ze1s out there and enough Zealots and Fundamentalist pounding on the “That isn’t the way to do it” drum that we are seeing a growing backlash to agile. Not because agile has issues (it does, but that’s not for today), but because these passionate agilists are being perceived as shoving it down people’s throats. Like the fur protestors with their cans of red paint, they go to extremes to make their point. The extremist just might be driving people away.

My Soapbox: I personally come down somewhere in the Te6 or Re6 transformational/revolutionary blending area of the chart. Agile is one of many tools in my toolbelt and I’ll use what works best to help the team, company and myself be successful. Given that I tend to get really upset with those at the Ze1 end of the spectrum. Why? Because one of the first tenants of agile is…

“Inspect and Adapt”

If you don’t change and adjust as you go, then how can you call yourself agile?

  1. Agile isn’t New!: The Agile Manifesto was signed in 2001. In the last ten years, the term agile has exploded across the world and become one of the rising trends that every business is keeping an eye on. Only the concept of agile isn’t ten years old, only the word agile is ten years old. The concepts of agile are a lot older. The first Scrum team dates back to the early nineties. Customer focused development concepts were a major fad in the 1980’s. Lean (which some will fervently  argue isn’t agile, but we won’t go there today) goes all the way back to Toyota’s post WWII reconstruction. And some have given good arguments for the roots of “agile” being in the Hawthorne Study of the 1920’s.

My Soapbox: Agile is a buzz word. In many ways agile is the PMI of its day (Yes, I just went there). Formal Project Management dates back to the 1950’s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that it really began to gain traction. Organizations like PMI (1984) and methodologies like Prince (1989) and Prince2 (1996) brought a measure of formality to a decades old profession.

But the biggest thing PMI (Prince2 in the UK/Europe) did was to give everyone a common language. It took what people had been doing for years, and gave everyone the same words to use for it. Earned Value means the same thing to me, as a project manager in Dubai. It does because of PMI, Prince2 and others who helped to create a language around project management.

The Agile Software Development Manifesto did the same thing for what most of us now think of as agile. Agile is the word we’ve all agreed on to use. Don’t let the word get in the way of long standing and good principles.

So is agile in danger of becoming a Fad?

Yes- And that’s a good thing:

The underlying principles of agile focus on the customer and the team. These are good foundations to have and the popularity of agile has given attention to these foundational principles.

Yes- And that’s a bad thing:

The near fanatical drive that some agilists have, combined with the “get rich, quick” attitude of many companies, who try and implement on the quick, are leading us down a road that could cause a perfectly good set of values to be cast onto the rocks of management faddom, to languish next to jazzercise, Tai bo and the grapefruit diet.

So what would you call it?:

Margaret Motamed, host of the BayScrum Meetuprecently described what she is doing as “Collaborative Management.” A lot of use would insist she’s agile and those Z1s would probably say she was just gaming the system. I think she might be on to something.

Right now I don’t know what I would call it. If I say “agile” you all know what I mean. If I call it “Flexible” then you’re not going to know exactly what I mean.

If I had to describe it in a single sentence:

“I believe in a customer focused, iterative process that is executed through a collaborative effort of the team and company.”

And I have one simple measurement to if I’m being successful.

“Are we doing better this week, than we were last week? If we are, then we win.”

Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email,
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP