There's A Lot of Room for Agile to Grow in 2012

Tags: agile, scrum, misalignments

Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. - Hegel 

InfoQ (a clearinghouse blog of current 'good ideas' in agile and software engineering) published a post today by David Bulkin lamenting the current and likely future state for agile implementations in the coming year:  Looking Back at Looking Ahead, Gloom for Agile in 2012?

Reading over the choice excerpts, what struck me was not so much the pessimistic characterizations of what's going on "in the wild", but rather that it's not changed much over the past decade. While agile adoptions are definitely on an increasing trend (last year's Version One State of Agile Development Survey showed a number of continued positive indicators), change is proving an intractable problem for a lot of folks. 

Industry commentators from Cutter Consortium identified all-too-familiar problems contributing to holding back businesses, teams and organizations from enjoying greater success with agile practices which can be distilled to significant misalignments in understanding and applying agile practices.  For example:

  • Using traditional recruiters/head-hunters to hire agile coaches to "fix their agile implementations" without understanding deeper reasons behind their struggles;
  • Using Scrum as a local optima only while keeping the rest of the organization fixed in old command-and-control structures and practices;
  • Avoiding investments in improving developer skillsets and tooling to enable agility over adding bodies to projects riddled with technical debt (thus raising the probability of invoking Brooks' Law);
  • Investing significant time building massive, overly-detailed product backlogs prior to starting and maintaining throughout the lifetime of the project instead of allowing details to emerge through continuous dialogs - a significant source of muda or waste;
  • Avoiding changing parts of the organization or practices to enable agility out of fear of taking on the challenge - effectively allowing the impediment to metastasize;
  • Avoiding getting experienced help to guide adoptions in favour of "going it alone" with inexperienced in-house staff;
  • Adapting agile frameworks to fit dysfunctional company cultures instead of the other way 'round.

These points underscore just how difficult it is to change and realign bad practices into something more resilient, powerful and enabling. Some organizations can do this, some cannot.  I'm an eternal optimist in that I believe any organization can change if they want it badly enough - and if they do, I really want to work with them to make this desire a reality.

However, I make this point to new customers who I am bridging into agile: What we're about to take on is not easy; it's going to take a lot of hard work, but if we persist it will be extraordinarily satisfying, productive and effective. When we allow ourselves to think it is easy or that we can take an easier shortcut, we've already begun down the road to failure. In other words, as Liz Keogh pointed out succinctly in a talk last year on Learning and Perverse Incentives, quoting the opening sentence of Waltzing with Bears"If a project has no risks, don't do it."

This is a learning opportunity - it's something to embrace boldy, not shrink away from in fear!

This said, change doesn't come for free, nor does it have a lot of handy, jingoistic shortcuts. It goes in fits and starts, has growing pains, moments of uncertainty and then clarity, mirages of objectives that smash upon concrete realities, giving way to even more problems and opportunities for continuous improvement.  There's no handbook to tell you what to do 100% of the time - merely the best advice based on what went right for some other people in a different context.  This is the space that agile has to grow into in 2012:  While there's a lot of continued dysfunction, having this naked and apparent is a good thing: It means that agile has delivered in surfacing (and continuing to surface) all the things we're doing wrong. All that remains is the hard-work of shifting the boulders.

If you're stuck and you're not getting good advice to get unstuck, try another advisor.  Learn more about the transformation you're undertaking.  Go and visit your teams to understand the nature of their problems.  Give them responsibility to really get things done and learn to get out of their way and let them lead.

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