Inside the Secret Fears of Agilists

Now with Agile

Scary isn’t it.

Agile, the edgy counterpoint to high ceremony, heavyweight, quality-of-result-depends-on-quality-of-process methodologies, could become just another vapid marketing buzzword.

How does this happen, you ask?  It’s an old pattern:

  1. A group of Really Smart People notice a Problem and create a Solution.  They share their Solution with the Industry.
  2. Others recognize the coolness, usefulness, righteousness, niftyness, or downright practicality of the Solution.  They adopt the Solution.
  3. The Solution works, at least for some of the people, some of the time.  Those who succeed with the Solution tell others, prompting the widespread response: “Hey!  I gotta get me some of that!”  The increased demand prompts more books/classes/conferences/services/products, and the hype from these new offerings in turn fuels increased demand, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of publicity.
  4. Executives hear about the Solution and mandate it, top-down.
  5. The Solution has now taken on a life of its own, and will be exploited as a Key Value Proposition by Mega-Vendors that sell to Executives.

This has happened before and will happen again.  It’s not just Agile.  We’ve seen this happen with specific programming languages (now with Java!), general technology (AJAX is Web 2.0!), open source (Free is Good!), other process models (Now Level 5!), and even the Internet itself (e-Everything!).

I’m fatalistic about the pattern.  It’s inevitable.  Even if Agile hasn’t reached Step 5 quite yet, it will get there.

But that’s OK because the real value of Agile transcends buzzword compliance.  Achieving true agility means finding the right balance of discipline and flexibility to systematically remove impediments to productivity within a given context.  That’s easy to say, hard to do, and impossible to package up with a neat little bow.

Those hoping to cash in on Agile Mania will discover that Agile is a little more difficult to grasp than the designed-for-auditability Capability Maturity Model.  They’ll find that creating a One-Size-Fits-All Template-Driven Standardized Unified Agile Process ends up looking way too much like the high ceremony processes Agile is supposed to replace.  They’ll learn that Agile does not lend itself to using statistical process control techniques to run huge projects on auto-pilot.  And they’ll eventually discover that you cannot assess Agile Compliance with an overly simplified checklist of audit success criteria.

It is possible that somewhere along the line, the word “Agile” will lose all meaning.  But if that happens it won’t be the end of Agile.  It will just be the end of a buzzword.  The Agile community may eventually decide to come up with a new, more meaningful label around which we can gather.  Or not.  Either way, Agility by any other name would retain the same balance of discipline and flexibility, and that’s the truly important thing.

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5 Responses to Inside the Secret Fears of Agilists

  1. G D Milner December 12, 2006 at 11:12 pm #

    Just one more example of how capitalism co-opts anything. I have heard it said that they can take your very rebellion and eventually sell it back to you.

  2. George Dinwiddie December 13, 2006 at 11:19 am #

    Absolutely right! Agile development doesn’t exist because it’s cool, but because it’s effective. The reasons why it’s effective are the same reasons why other business processes are effective. And some people will take advantage of that effectiveness, and some people will try to copy the surface aspects and not be effective.

    ”Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

  3. jaffamonkey January 26, 2007 at 11:20 am #

    It is a shame that so many methodologies end up this way. It has become a real battle to constantly remind yourself what the aims of the methodology are. People who are trying to cash in on Agile, will have the same disappointment as those who tried to cash in on Open source. Failure to understand the principle, will ultimately lead to failure of implementation. Though this is a good self-governing result, it still damages the perception.

    In the UK, lagging behind a year or so in technology and approach, Agile is still very much a current buzzword. From test consultant work, I generally found that Agile is implemented very poorly, outside of development. And with staggering inflexibility. Agile is still seen as a magical total solution, but then in the mind-blowing speed of technology and software evolvement, it is not suprising people cling onto these terms like some kind of lifeboat.

  4. Lisa Crispin April 22, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    Cool to see this from back in time. Wasn’t hard to see this coming, but your prediction was right on!

    OTOH, more teams are engaging in “agile” practices and principles without calling it that. CI is much more accepted as a must-do. TDD and ATDD are finding their way into teams that don’t label themselves “agile”.

    I’m so longing for the day when it is just “good ways we develop software that helps our business/customers.”

  5. Diana Larsen April 22, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    The future is here. I visited with someone whose company (we’ll call it “company A”) is looking for more help since the execs purchased help “adopting Agile” from Ac**nture. It didn’t go well. OTOH they paid a lot of money for it. Now company A’s leaders seek help from people who know more about Agile and can fix the mess..and, btw, they want lower fees because their budget flew away with the big consulting company. 😉