The maturing or ‘agile’

kitten-yogaA deliberately provocative article on Linked-In asks the question is ‘Agile Dead?’; a discussion on how various aspects ‘agile’ invented by different individuals and groups are fading from prominence follows.  Agile is not my area of expertise but the article seems designed to generate attention without really saying anything new.

What the article did prompt in my thinking was the question ‘What is agile?’

Concepts vary from:

  • The Agile Manifesto (which is basically 101 common sense) created to overcome the failures of rigid IT development that required a 100% complete fully detailed plan before people really knew what the problem was (often referred to as ‘waterfall’ development but nothing like the original ideas in the waterfall concept).
  • Through to the agile anarchist community who’s mantra seems to be ‘trust us all of our teams are above average’ and we will make you really nice software without any discipline (a concept that ignores the mathematical fact that 50% of any group have to be below average….).
  • Then there are all of the various ‘agile’ methods from ‘Scrum’ to ‘XP’.

Ergo ‘Agile’ or ‘agile’ can mean virtually anything to anyone.  In contrast to all of these specific variants, I would suggest at its root ‘agile’ is a concept or philosophy rather than a methodology or process; useful philosophies rarely ‘die’.

What is emerging I believe is a gradual understanding that the false concepts of ‘command and control[1] and ‘certainty, based on a fully detailed plan[2] are slowly disappearing from management thinking (although there are still plenty of recalcitrant ‘fossils’ embedded in far too many management structures) – detailed planning months or years in advance of the work, done at a time where the work is imprecisely understood cannot control an uncertain future regardless of contract conditions and the exhortation of management. These ideas are slowly being replaced by an adaptive approach to projects that engages stakeholders and focuses on actually achieving the stakeholder’s objectives and realising benefits, ie, an ‘agile’ approach.

Every project and every project management system can benefit from some elements of ‘agile’ (which overlaps with many other concepts such as ‘light’, ‘lean’, and ‘last planner’. The key tenets seem to be:

  • involve your stakeholders,
  • trust your team,
  • don’t waste time planning in detail things you don’t have detailed knowledge of[3],
  • adapt to changing circumstances, and
  • wherever possible avoid a ‘big bang’ approach – iterative and incremental developments mitigate the risk of catastrophic failure.

The agile manifesto certainly highlighted these important concepts but it did not invent them. These elements of fundamental common sense are ignored in far too many situations. What the agile manifesto and the subsequent changes in attitude have done is refocus on the importance of people and relationships in any project.

On the ‘Agile front’, many of the ridiculous excesses promoted by consultants and experts are certainly fading into obscurity. Executives are learning that ‘agile’ is not a cure all ‘silver bullet’ it needs pragmatic management and proper planning the same as everything else, it just the way planning and managing is done that differs; for more on this see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P109_Thoughts_on_Agile.pdf

Certainly there has been a realisation that the agile anarchist’s concept of ‘trust us’ (and their abandonment of any pretence of strategic planning and documentation) really does not work. An appropriate degree of planning, coordination and documentation is essential to achieve success, particularly on larger projects and in the longer term when the inevitable updates and maintenance cut in.

In summary, if ‘agile’ is a philosophy that prioritises people over rigid process, and it will change and adapt over time; it’s not ‘dead’ but it is evolving into a pragmatic management process. Certainly some of the narrowly defined concepts and methodologies branded as ‘agile’ are failing and being abandoned as ‘passing fads’ and new adaptations are emerging, but that’s normal. The core underpinnings of the original Agile Manifesto are still alive and well.

__________________________

[1] In the 1950’s Peter Drucker identified the need for a new way of managing ‘knowledge work’, see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P070_A_Simple_View_of_Complexity.pdf

[2] “All models are wrong, but some are useful” (Prof. George E.P. Box), and every estimate used in the plan is wrong to a greater or lesser degree, see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1051_Cost_Estimating.pdf

[3] For more on ‘rolling wave’ planning see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1060_Rolling_Wave.pdf

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