In all aspects of life humans need balance. Think about it: what type of food you eat, what exercises you do, work vs. play, the list is endless. While it is possible to embrace one extreme and succeed, history has proven otherwise. This extreme approach is untenable; you have set yourself up for failure but said failure could have been avoided. If one would take a more balanced approach the odds of success increase greatly.
This dichotomy also applies to agile practitioners. I posit that almost every practitioner I come into contact with falls into one of two categories: the dogmatist and the pragmatist.
The dogmatist is easily identifiable; dogmatics are the first one in a meeting to preach “good agile says…” or “the Scrum handbook reads that…” A dogmatic’s answer to everything is what is in the written material is law and that every step should be taken to hold those items sacrosanct; positive results can be achieved by applying the rules with no room for interpretation. A non-IT example would be the dialog around choosing a Supreme Court justice in the United States; the dogmatists consider the US Constitution inviolate and will not accept any other interpretation other than what is written. A dogmatic is most concerned with “doing the right thing.”
Dogmatists end up creating something that matches the “letter of the law” in the realm that they are working in; their creations most often mirror the “proper” application by the majority of specialists in that field. The downside to a strict dogmatic approach is that you end up with a tightly-constrained system that while best exemplifies the “religion” of your domain it is often painful to make any changes or updates. Another facet is that any attempt to use dogma to enact a lasting change in an organization creates more potential points of failure due to the culture and or predilections of the group as a whole.
Consider the dogmatic approach of an organization adopting Agile as a delivery methodology. Dogmatic practitioners are the ones to tout “principles and practices” as a rationalization for their decision making. As a result Dogmatists will attempt to move a team/organization/culture to fit those norms. In your experience how often are they successful? Does that initial success persist over time? Is that framework/process abandoned due to being immutable…is it unable to absorb change?
While the dogmatist will want to apply the “written rule of law” to every scenario, the pragmatist is more concerned with completing the task than with what the “right” way is. A pragmatist will eschew what the common knowledge is and apply what they think will work in a situation. Typically the pragmatist understands what the literature says but due to impatience (or inability to apply said knowledge) they wander off and create their own path. Consider the debate around the U.S. Supreme Court; a pragmatic judge considers the U.S. Constitution a “living document” which should be used more of a guideline to be re-interpreted as conditions demand. Pragmatists are most concerned with “doing the thing right.”
Pragmatics often create something that “works”, but at what cost? If what you have created is very far from the central tenets of the medium you are working in, did you follow those tenets at all? And what happens when you need to make a change…you’ve already gone beyond the bounding box that the dogma preaches and more often than not have made even conceptualizing changes that much more difficult, let alone trying to apply these changes in what amounts to a “wild west” environment.
Now let’s consider what happens when a pragmatist attempts to assist an organization adopting an Agile methodology. Pragmatics will strip away any component that they judge to be too difficult or time-consuming to adopt, or even scarier they ignore practices or principles that they feel “won’t work here.” They will initially be successful yet when you ignore the underlying tenets of Agile to “go agile by X date” you’re building your foundation on sand. With the lack of solid structure, your change will quickly go off the rails.
So which approach is better?
The answer is both, but only when applied IN BALANCE. There is a time and a place for being dogmatic (“Why are we doing X?”) as well as a time & place for being pragmatic (“How do we do X?”). Practitioners should look to use the correct approach depending upon the situation as this is the best way to ensure success; for ourselves, for the organizations we’re supporting, and for the Agile methodology as a whole.