UPDATE: A new version of the Agile Zealot’s Handbook is now available.
On Wednesday night I was the guest speaker at the inaugural Agile Practitioners Forum, organised by Les Oliver and Simon Voice and sponsored by Radtac and Connections Recruitment . The venue was the Gun Room aboard the HMS Belfast , which is moored on the Thames river. The session was called Simon Baker’s Soapbox . It was a 15-minute discourse that I delivered with Mauro Talevi and Gus Power .
The audience included many experienced agile practitioners and coaches so I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to be provocative, in a nice way of course, to stimulate a discussion about something that I, and Gus and Mauro , feel quite strongly about. I worry that the values of courage, respect, simplicity, communication and feedback and the principles of the Agile Manifesto are paid lip service by many companies adopting agile methods. I wanted to hear what others thought about this and whether we could do more to help companies understand the part values and principles play in making agility work.
Below is a transcript of our 15-minute patter:
"Anyone who knows me knows that I have a tendency to speak my mind and that I’m not always politically correct. I also have an anti-establishment streak. If I’m the bad cop today, then Gus is worse cop. We’ve both been engaged as coaches by companies with institutional command and control structures. And we’ve had lots of fun. I call it constructive disruption . Mauro , however, is a more balanced kinda guy. At least until he’s had a few glasses of wine and gets the urge to dance.The Discussion
More companies are trying to achieve agility. And more companies are failing to achieve agility. More and more I’m hearing "Oh we tried Agile but it didn’t work for us". I’m not surprised. I see companies focus entirely on practices or adapt things before they’ve even tried them.
Why are companies focusing entirely on practices? Poor education? Maybe and it’s unforgivable! Conscious ignorance? That’s being stupid! And it gets worse when they cherry-pick. As for gradual adoption of practices: It’s glacially slow. The benefits are slow to emerge and it’s difficult to see how the practices all interconnect.
Why are companies adapting things before they’ve even tried them? How many times have you heard: "Oh that wouldn’t work here"? How can you know until you’ve tried it? I thought adaptation was supposed to be based on empirical feedback? Try something, inspect the result and then adapt.
As agile becomes more commonplace, more people are saying agility is all about adaptation, we take a different view. While adapting is a key part of our agility we still think it’s about the values and principles. The values and principles help us create the mental environment that helps us achieve agility. Without them we are not set-up for success. We think we should be getting more precious about them. More vocal about them. More protective. And less tolerant of companies that ignore them.
Companies are ignoring the values and principles. They don’t understand their importance. And they’re not prepared to change the organisation and culture to incorporate them. But it doesn’t really help when some of the principles of the Agile Manifesto are ambiguous. However, like the HSBC adverts on TV, the principles can be interpreted differently in different cultures. Different organisations see something as adaptation while others might see it as compromise.
So we rewrote the principles of the Agile Manifesto to be less ambiguous and called it the Agile Zealot’s Handbook :
IF you don’t repeatedly release software
into a production environment
at least once every month
that realises business value
for a real customer…
IF you’re not paying constant attention to technical excellence
with simple, effective, incremental design
driven by continuous, repeatable automated testing
with at least 95% coverage…
IF you’re not learning
through inspection of every iteration
and adapting and improving
all of the time…
IF your team is not empowered to self-organise,
does not sit together and engage in face-to-face communication,
does not include your customer
and all the necessary skills to make its own decisions and take immediate action…
THEN YOU HAVE COMPROMISED YOUR AGILITY
Ok. So perhaps we’re being deliberately provocative here. But we’re trying to make an important point. Too many companies are using the term ‘adaptation’ to get out of incorporating the values and principles. I call this compromised agility .
Ultimately I see no winners here. These companies don’t win because their projects still fail or they don’t get to experience the results and fun agility can generate. And we don’t win because I believe agility is devalued by what these companies are doing."
The discussion that followed lasted for 90 minutes. It touched on many aspects, we heard many opinions and it included agreement and disagreement. Some people thought agile methods are too dogmatic. Others thought they’re at their best when they’re dogmatic. Some said adoption of agile methods needs to be gradual because people can only assimilate change in small steps. Others said adoption should be all at once so that people experience how all the practices work together and realise benefits more quickly.
Someone asked "does it matter if your agility is compromised?" If you’re delivering business value perhaps it doesn’t matter. But are the people motivated, creative and having fun? At the Agile Business Conference , Kent Beck asked rhetorically: "How would you develop if it was your money?" If it was my money I’d spend it on a team that doesn’t compromise on its agility because I believe they’ll produce more business value at lower cost, repeatably.
I was pleased when someone said that "often our values are in conflict with those of management". I believe the values of courage, respect, simplicity, communication and feedback and the principles of the Agile Manifesto are most at home in a trusting environment where people are empowered and organise themselves to get things done. I don’t think you can create this environment within a command and control management structure. I think companies pay lip service to the values and principles because they’re unwilling to undergo organisational and cultural change.
I’ll leave you with this: Care more than others think is wise; risk more than others think is safe; dream more than others think is practical; expect more than others think is possible.
Pictures from the evening:
Here are the points noted during the discussion:
- You don’t need to be dogmatic to be agile.
- And you can’t be dogmatic in every domain, e.g. you can’t release regularly in a highly regulated industry like pharmaceuticals…
- But it’s better when you are dogmatic.
- Sometimes you have to pick and choose because some organisations won’t permit, say pair-programming…
- Yes, and it’s this attitude that compromises your ability to be agile.
- Agile values and principles are often in conflict with those of management.
- You have to introduce change gradually otherwise people will resist…
- But it then takes so long to become agile that teams don’t see how it all works together. Introducing it all at once helps people experience ‘the whole’ and see how its greater than the sum of its parts.
- What is technical excellence?
- As an agile team a lack of courage can compromise your agility.
- Being agile doesn’t guarantee success.
- This is all nice in theory but in reality it can’t work. Agility has to be more about adaptability.
- Does it really matter if you compromise your agility?