Paging Martin Luther: the case for an Agile Reformation

Agile is dead. So says this guy. And this guy. And this guy says it’s not dead, but it’s mainly fake. We’ve also got “light” and “dark” agile…how did we get here?

Ivar Jacobson theorizes that technology works in twenty (20)-year cycles; the earliest cycles were the Structured Methods Era and then the Object Methods Era, and Ivar proposes we currently sit in the Agile Methods Era. Since the mid-2000s software delivery (and by extension, Enterprise IT) has been enraptured by the idea of “agile”…the discipline has embraced the principles laid out in the Agile Manifesto and has run with them, full of vim and vigor. Twenty years in, the cracks are starting to show in the facade…

How did we begin to go astray? While there’s no “Patient Zero” when it comes to the perception that agile as a practice has lost it’s way, there are a few obvious contributors:

  • The framework/prescribed methodology crowd – the manifesto was written in 2001 for software delivery teams, and scaling/enterprise utilization was likely not discussed. That potential “blind spot” lead to a multitude of vendors, consultants, and gurus stepping into this space. Said vendors are trying to help solve problems but also (some would argue, primarily) to pimp their wares and make some money as well. Now we have frameworks on top of frameworks, with enterprises saying “We’re an x framework shop” thereby validating Ivar’s remarks on the Methods Prison.
  • Agile consulting – as time has gone on and agile has become a “thing” we’ve seen all the big consulting firms jump into the “agile” game. This has resulted in platoons of people who have taken classes and achieved “certifications” but they oftentimes are not “bought in” to the methodology, only the ability to make money while offering advice on the topic. With no true skin in the game this leads to uninformed opinion masquerading as expert advice, further souring the opinion of “agile”
  • Coaching – there is an obvious over-abundance of “agile coaches” in the IT space; being as there’s no central body to use as a quick thumbs-up/down gauge of someone’s ability via classwork and certification (a la the Project Management Institute) there is virtually no barrier to entry to deem one’s self an “agile coach.” This leads to organizations hiring poor or inexperienced coaches which often results in a perceived poor experience with “agile” (their unacknowledged poor hiring and vetting processes notwithstanding).

While this perceived failure has many fathers and could result in tons of finger-pointing and blame-gaming, the fact remains that there is a perception that “agile is dead/dark/doesn’t work”, much to the sadness/chagrin of practitioners who know this not to be the case. So the next question is: how do we fix this?

Martin Luther

In the 1500’s Western Christianity experienced The Reformation; multiple reformers from different areas and cultures came forward to challenge traditional Christian dogma and practices. Men such as John Calvin and Martin Luther spoke out about their concerns with Christianity, and this led to a giant wave of change inside the Church. I posit that this type of revolution is EXACTLY what the agile world needs, if not where we’re headed towards whether we agree or not.

The first step is to acknowledge that the Agile Manifesto, like all creative works, was a product of its time. Think about how fast technology moves in today’s world; there is no way some of the practices that we take for granted today (such as one-click-instantaneous deployments to a Production environment, fully tested both functionally and regression) were in the author’s minds as they wrote this seminal work. It is a fundamental failing of many practitioners to hold the manifesto inviolate (almost “holy”) and never challenge or want to change it…which at it’s core is anathema to what we preach with continuous inspection and improvement. It’s time for us to sit down and look at the manifesto, and suggest potential changes or improvements.

This effort may result in nothing, or it may result in many things…maybe we redefine what the term “agile” really means? Maybe we create a whole new nomenclature? Or maybe, like The Reformation, we end up fractured with multiple practice modalities joined at a genetic level, but functioning in totally different ways.

Let’s say that we continue as-is and the idea of “agile” keeps going in the direction it’s currently facing…we may STILL end up with a Reformation, but instead of an intended consequence of coordinated actions by many, it may still happen albeit organically. What or who could potentially lead us to a fundamental mind shift?

  • Daniel Mezick, Niels Pflaegling, and the OpenSpace movement: this practice centers around “opt-in” contributions to organizational change, and getting the people who are interested in success together to work towards a common goal. OpenSpace Agility and OpenSpace Beta/Betacodex are both ways to embrace large-scale organizational change as driven by the people who not only want to be involved with but also will have to live with said change. 
  • Jutta Eckstein and John Buck, BOSSA nova: this modality uses the Agile Manifesto as a backstop and utilizes parts of Open Space, Beyond Budgeting, and Sociocracy to embrace change in an organization. This idea is still fairly young but shows promise.
  • The Disciplined Agile/PMI partnership: PMI purchasing Disciplined Agile may prove to be a game-changer. Now you have an enormous international practitioner body being exposed to a toolkit of agile practices and techniques, by an organization who already has the infrastructure for large-scale professional certification, training, and education options.

Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but one would have to be completely oblivious to not see that change is coming, and we should collectively want to get in front of it. Or else that change may just come without us giving it “permission” to…but don’t take my word for it, look to history…

Louis Pasteur

In the late 1800s Louis Pasteur introduced to the world the concept of vaccination; if you remember your history you’ll recall he was denounced and disbelieved. Common scientific consensus said these things didn’t exist, and to consider them required a challenge to the prevailing scientific opinion of the time. Shortly after his death in 1895 a Dr. Jeanne published in the French medical journal Concours Medical an editorial containing the following:

We must march with the times. The coming century will see the blossoming of a new medicine: let us devote what is left of this century to studying it. Let us go back to school and prepare the ground for an evolution, if we are to avoid a revolution.”