Uncovering Agile

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Photo by Vimal S on Unsplash

After seeing 1000 posts on LinkedIn and elsewhere about Agile being dead, I wanted to understand what might have contributed to its alleged death. How do you kill a mutually reinforcing value system such as Agile? My hypothesis today is that it might actually still be alive, only badly beaten and scarred. Let’s find out what the postmortem revealed.

What’s Your Role?

But first, before breaking this down, let’s see who you are. Are you a Developer? Designer? CEO? Marketing analyst? Salesperson? Product Manager? Product Owner? A knowledge worker of any sort? A Coach? A Leader? For the purposes of this article: it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you want to achieve together, what you believe, and whether you can change those beliefs or not, both individually and collectively. We’re all wired differently, and we’re not “resources”. However, becoming more Agile may actually require you to rewire your brain. I’m only half joking. Yes, you can apparently do that with Neuroplasticity :)

Where Do You Work?

Secondly, where do you work? A big corporation? SME? Startup? Public sector? Nonprofit organisation? Agile is a tool, and tools work best when you pick the right one. If your organisation is very process-centric, inward-looking and non collaborative—and you want it to stay that way—then the Agile way of working might as well be dead (in your organisation).

What’s The Context?

Thirdly, what was the context? How did being Agile prevent you from achieving your desired outcome? Did you feel disempowered? Are you talking about the vanilla Agile as described in the Agile Manifesto, a particular Agile framework, or your organisation’s meeting habits? How did those habits contribute to the death of Agile (for you)? Did you copy a “model”—a set of practices—from another company, and end up disappointed that it didn’t work in your organisation?

Did you scale Agile instead of scaling down your organisation and the work? Where in the project/product life cycle are you? Did you not get the feedback from your client early enough, resulting in waste? What do you want to optimise for? Are you optimising only for Resource Efficiency and not allowing any slack? How did you set up your Agile teams? Did you apply the Agile way of working only locally at the team level, without the required structural and cultural changes in the organisation and its leadership? These are just some aspects that might have affected your perceived value of Agile. Continue asking those questions.

What You Believe Matters

Let’s break this down now. Whatever your circumstances are, if you still say Agile is dead, you’ve paralysed one or more of the four Agile limbs:

  • You don’t believe in the unique talents and skills of each team. You believe people are fungible “resources”.
  • You don’t believe in small units of work. You believe that value is best delivered later, in big chunks.
  • You don’t believe in collaboration. You believe working in silos is better, making decisions early on when you know the least about the work.
  • You don’t believe in becoming better and more effective. You prefer the status quo.

I’ve used the verb believe here, because Agile is a mutually reinforcing value system (and not a religion). So in a nutshell, by saying Agile is dead you perhaps don’t believe in Agile values. Or perhaps you don’t recognise those values in your daily work. Is there something else we’re missing? What’s not included here?

What Do You Wish Were Included?

First, let’s make one thing clear: Agile has nothing to do with software. That said, there are certain things that are not prescribed in the Agile Manifesto, for example: leadership, product management, practices, and metrics. We do need those as well, but do we declare Agile dead for the things it doesn’t even include? Are we projecting our hopes and needs onto Agile, only to discover we need to do the work ourselves?

Taking It Seriously

We should listen and take constructive criticism seriously. It’s a gift, and a sign that people care. However, we should always try to be aware of the hidden agenda (if any) behind the bad press.

Here are just some examples of arguments I’ve heard against Agile and the industry:

  • Agile kills innovation. What is innovation? It’s hard work; it’s your habits that you use (and change), to experiment with things. Let’s be honest: Agile is not preventing you from doing just that, is it?
  • AI is killing Agile. AI is a game changer, but I think AI has more important things to worry about. So do we.
  • Consultants are killing Agile: The industry is mixed with people with different backgrounds and experience levels. You have to find the right one for you (people-first, remember?).
  • Certifications are killing Agile: It’s a big business nowadays, and certifications do not necessarily correlate with experience. Use your common sense in the buzzword jungle.

What I sense is a need to reimagine Agile, and make it more accessible to all.

Next Steps

Do we want to uncover what Agile already is, by removing all the fluff? Or do we want to add, remove or clarify the existing values and principles in it? What are the next steps for strengthening the fundamentals, and getting back to the roots?

In addition to the original Agile Manifesto, there are a number of newer initiatives, for example:

What are your thoughts on these? Can they help you in achieving your desired outcomes? What can you do in your team and in your organisation to advocate for these values? What practices can you create that support these values? What can you contribute to these communities?

In Closing

My intention was not to write an ode to Agile. I’ve examined some of the main aspects of the Agile way of working. I’ve argued that you, your teams, your organisation (system), and your context are unique to you. There’s no “The One Best Way”. That means there’s no silver bullet, and you still need to put in the change effort. There are lots of questions in this article, and the word Agile is mentioned dozens of times.

Call it what you want if you don’t like the word—however, whatever it is, I’d rather catch it alive than dead. Instead of killing it, can we agree to try to make it better? If we look up, there are plenty of complex challenges to tackle, both locally and globally. I believe we humans still need help not only in deciding, creating and communicating what to do, but also in uncovering better ways of doing it together. What’s stopping you today?