Agile is Hurting. Or everything wrong with Agile today.
One size fits all. Not really. We all know that. Agile means adaptation. OK. We hear about accepting change. We know about inspection and adaptation. But then again everyone says we should start by doing it as it has been proven to work. Right? And we know that Spotify works. And Scrum works. And also we have dozens of books with examples from several companies who have been using some sort of Agile to grow. So… which one should I choose from? Can I copy one? If so, which one is best for me?
The problem with this approach is exactly the same with our educational system. We offer ready made solutions to be memorised but we do not require our students to thinks by themselves. We have them know by heart the multiplication table but can anyone one tell why numbers work that way? Does anyone has an understanding of what they are studying? And then we get to college and algebra comes along and we are lost.
What can we do about it then?
Being around Agile for 10 years now I have to say it should be an easy answer. But really it isn’t. Scrum is a framework, with a guide. Self explanatory. It is not a close done deal with a bible. But we learn it almost as if it were. Agile is a manifesto with a public declaration of values and principles, being the manifesto itself the first and often disregarded sentence “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.”. That’s the goal, the purpose of the manifesto. That’s the WHY of it. What’s wrong with all this? Well, where do I start?
Following the Agile boom, there is a proliferation of thousands of books and blogs and consulting/training companies. All try to “sell” Agile. There may be a couple of them worth reading or working with. This means that from the get go we are flooded with gibberish and snake oil. And for the uneducated there’s no easy way to separate the good from the bad and the bad from the worst. This, for me at least, is problem number one and probably the most dangerous issue.
Then we have the evangelists. Worst, the fundamentalists. Agile or death! Scrum or nothing! These are often people who try to impose whatever flavour they defend to the death. I am a trainer and I often say “Agile might not be right for you. Don’t do it just because…”. But we see currently an all out war between the Agile templars and the rest of the world. This is creating an increasing resistance and disregard from several companies. Problem number two here.
Also we have the manifesto it self. It was written 18 years ago with software in mind. The technology has evolved and also Agile has outgrown software. Shouldn’t we revise it? Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber have been doing it with the Scrum Guide. Also we have a lot more than just Scrum today. From XP, Crystal, DSDM, TDD, BDD to Kanban, Lean Startup, OKRs, Management 3.0, Holacracy, Sociocracy 3.0, Design Thinking, and so many more, Agile (or at least it’s core values) has spread and cannot be taught in a reductive way. This is problem number three.
Following the last two, if Agile has outgrown software who’s to say that we should use approach A or B? If my company builds physical products must we use a Lean approach? Kanban boards? Scrum for Hardware? Maybe I should go with the Spotify model if I want to build a startup? The problem here is that there is no one single answer. And also we should be aware that social and cultural environments within our countries (yes, countries) may influence the culture within our companies and as such we should not copy/paste any given working model. It probably would not work. There are several articles focusing on this. Just Google it. The Scrum Guide as well. It’s a framework. A scaffold. It does not tell you which processes and techniques you should or can use. This is often related to what is called the Halo Effect, a known cognitive bias. Instead learn from all those and create your own model. Go and grab the best of what fits. What works for your company, your products, your teams. That’s agility at work. And currently problem number four and the most difficult to address within the corporate world. Which leads us to…
Problem number five. Agile is being done by our companies as a management method. Something you choose to implement within our development teams. And the rest of the company stays the same. Vertical, managerial. As it has always been. And we all need to change but we don’t welcome change as we should. Because we don’t like to lose power. Because we like very much our corner offices and our parking spots. Change is needed if we want to BE Agile. Otherwise we will only DO Agile in a niche. Nothing wrong with that if it works for you but just don’t say you are Agile if all you do is plaster post its on your walls.
Finally, problem number six and the one that is spreading the most. It is directly associated with problem number one. This one I call the pandemic of Agile. Currently the growth of training companies and certifications mean that many companies try to recruit people that have at least one such certification. And too many think that all you need is just that. A certification. If you combine this with the fact that most certifications (regardless of price) usually mean being in a classroom for a day or two with some requiring not even that, just an online test, it’s easy to see what the problem is. Example, in the first trimester of 2017 there were around 95000 PSM I certifications issued. I couldn’t find numbers for CSM (too many) but considering that in Portugal (my home country) there are currently 2631 CSM and we are a very small community just think about it. There are hundreds of thousands of Scrum Masters alone. Add Product Owners, add all other Agile certifications. Now let me ask you, what percentage of those do you think have the necessary experience and mindset to be on an Agile team? And of those how many can contribute actively to the necessary transformation in order for a team or company towards Agility? Having any kind of Agile certification has become mainstream. You get a CSM and “ta da!” you are now a bonafide Agilist. You might even jump a few years ahead and become an Agile Coach. Without any once of knowledge on coaching or real Agility whatsoever!
In conclusion, from one size fits all approaches to snake oil organisations and people who do Agile but aren’t, Agile is spreading like a disease when it should spread like a good perfume. Better yet, like a good smell. You know when your mother started doing Sunday lunch and slowly the smell of your favorite dish would spread all across your home? That kind of smell. Sadly this is not the case and I am afraid that if we continue on this path Agile will burst into flames. From an increase number of failures mostly due to bad transformations to resistance from imposing wrong approaches and professionals with little or no experience (but several trendy certifications), Agile is hurting. Bad.