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Keep Agile Going

Last month, was the tenth anniversary of the Agile Manifesto. To mark the occasion, I ceded my editorial space in Dr. Dobb's Journal to Jim Highsmith, one of the original signers of the manifesto, so he could share some reflections on the Agile movement, its present and future.
— Andrew Binstock

My first reflection is that ten years of Agile methods have had an extremely positive impact on the industry. In his classic, The Secrets of Consulting, Jerry Weinberg offers us his Law of Raspberry Jam, “The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets.” I thought about this recently as I’ve read blogs and articles from Agilists who are bemoaning the state of the Agile movement. They are concerned that the movement has gone awry, that people are practicing prescriptive agility, that they are not living up to the vision of the founders. So, what did they expect?

As any movement expands from its narrow early base of practitioners, others take it in unforeseen directions — some good, some not so good. That’s just the way movements go. We can wax nostalgic about the “good old days,” can reflect on progress and try to redirect, or we can innovate and move forward. As we reflect on 10 years of Agile, I’d prefer to focus on the positive — how we’ve learned to deliver value to customers faster, how we’ve brought quality to the forefront in ways that haven’t happened before, and how we’ve improved the quality of work places around the globe.

Innovators, Imitators, and Idiots

My second reflection is that while overall the Agile movement has had a positive impact on the world of software development, there are improvements to be made. In a PBS interview concerning the financial meltdown, Warren Buffett commented on the natural progression of how good ideas go wrong. He called this the “three I’s.” “First come the innovators, who see opportunities and create genuine value. Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done. Sometimes they improve on the original idea; often they tarnish it. Last come the idiots, whose avarice undermines the innovations they are trying to exploit.” [see Practically Radical, by William C. Taylor].

How this applies to Agile: We are more familiar with the technology adoption curve — enthusiasts, visionaries, pragmatists, conservatives, and skeptics. Many pundits project that the Agile movement has crossed the “chasm” (popularized by Jeffery Moore) into wide acceptance in the industry. But what about Buffett’s progression? Are we in danger of being overtaken by the imitators and the idiots?

There has surely been a large influx of imitators into the Agile movement — an inevitable development as the market for Agile services and tools has expanded rapidly. Many of these imitators added improvements while some have tarnished the Agile brand. And, there have been a few idiots from time to time, people and companies who barely know how to spell Agile hanging out their Agile shingles, often giving Agile delivery a bad name in the process.

But the real question is how do we keep moving forward as a movement? There are at least four keys ways that come to mind: continue to innovate, balance idealism and practicality, reinvigorate our Agile value roots, and unify rather than splinter.

Let me explain.

  • Innovate. I’m encouraged by the continuous innovation I see in Agile: DevOps, continuous delivery, the conversations over technical debt, Lean, Kanban, Agile/Adaptive Leadership, and more. Continued innovation combats the creep of staleness that tends to infect movements after a few years.
  • Idealism vs. Practicality. As Agile permeates into larger organizations; we have to focus on both idealism and practicality. Many people don’t care much about esoteric arguments — they care about results. Idealism and innovation are absolutely necessary for a vibrant movement, but they need to be balanced with a dose of practicality in organizational transitions.
  • Reinvigorate. The power and attractiveness of the Agile movement lies in its values as expressed in the Agile Manifesto and the Declaration of Interdependence. The more we can emphasize the dual importance of both doing Agile (practices) and being Agile (values), the better we can move forward on a more solid foundation.
  • Unify vs. Splinter. As any movement grows, there are times when it tends to splinter and times (sometimes) when it unifies. I appreciated Mike Cohn’s recent Scrum Alliance update in which he said, “We want Scrum teams to look beyond the Scrum framework and experience the great ideas found in our sister approaches of Lean, Extreme Programming, Kanban, Feature-Driven Development, DSDM, Crystal, Adaptive, and more.” Efforts like this to bring the Agile/Scrum/Lean/Kanban/etc. communities together, rather than continue to splinter further, leaves less space for the idiots to exploit.

The important goal is to rotate back and forth between innovators and imitators — advancing and then consolidating — without falling into the idiot trap as did the financial industry. I hope that by focusing on Agile values and principles, continuing to innovate, balancing between idealism and practically, and taking opportunities to unify rather than splinter will keep the idiots at bay.

Unorthodox, Unconventional, and Innovation

My third reflection is that the improvements to Agile lie, not in popularization but in continued innovation and innovators.

Paul Farmer was an unconventional doctor. Tracy Kidder (in Mountains Beyond Mountains) describes Farmer’s Haitian clinic, located in the difficult to access highlands, where Farmer often hiked hours to see a single patient or treated multiple antibiotic resistant tuberculosis patients with expensive new drugs. Farmer didn’t follow the typical public health cost-benefit approach; he treated individuals and riled that very public health community with his unconventional approach.

In Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon, writes about “succeeding in a world where conformity reigns but exceptions rule.” Product differentiation, sustainable differentiation, she says, “is rarely a function of well-roundedness; it is typically a function of lopsidedness.”

Walk through your neighborhood grocery and look at hand soap — hundreds of variations, little differentiation. Innovation requires stepping out of comfort zones and being different from others. I know one IT organization that has figured out how to capitalize more than 90 percent of their software development expense by looking beyond tradition. I know another IT organization that has eschewed the common off shoring wisdom, keeping development onshore and outperforming their competitors.

Ten years ago, in February 2001, a group of 17 unconventional, unorthodox individuals got together, wrote the Agile Manifesto and launched the Agile movement. In the last 10 years Agile delivery has often moved from the unconventional to the conventional, from the maverick to the conformist. What now? The roots of agility are in complex adaptive systems and the notion of operating at the edge-of-chaos — that knife-edged balancing point between chaos and stifling structure.

As we move into the teenage years of the Agile movement, we can’t forget that agility isn’t about structure, practices, and conventions. Agility is ultimately about living on the edge, of pushing the envelope, of standing out in a crowd, of being lopsided in a world of conformity.

Enterprise Agility

My final reflection on the Agile movement is about an expanded future. Enterprises are beginning to expand on their success with Agile software development. They’re looking at bringing Agile principles and practice to other parts to the enterprise. The industry appears to be at a tipping point to a far more strategic opportunity to implement agility at an enterprise level. In the face of markets characterized by rapid change, complexity, and ambiguity, enterprise executives are finding new ways of harnessing their organization’s creativity, adaptability, operating prowess, and customer relationships. In various circles, this leadership style for the future has been called creative leadership, adaptive leadership, Management 2.0 (and 3.0), collaborative leadership, light-touch leadership, and Agile leadership.

The Teenage Years

Teenagers are unpredictable. The teen years are bumpy, sometimes teens do great things, and sometimes they get into trouble. As the Agile movement matures past its 10th anniversary, it will be unpredictable also.

— Jim Highsmith is an executive consultant at ThoughtWorks.

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