Agile Will Kill Us All

12.05.2017 | 6 min read

The tech industry started treating Agile as a remedy for everything. It is not. The overall hype has pushed the deep understanding of agility to the backstage, and it was the worst move we could make.

Let’s put a few things straight first. There are two main sets of wisdom and knowledge in the universum of Agile. There’s the philosophy of nourishing flexibility and sanity in complex software-related endeavors, which I cherish and praise by reading a line from The Manifesto every other day at least.

There’s also a family of methods, many of which have very little in common, that landed under the Agile umbrella as the new, one and only way to go in many different business settings.

Today, I’ll discuss both and will spare no one.

From now on, please forget about all the gospel truths about developing groundbreaking products from scratch, doing twice the amount work in half the time, addressing complex adaptive problems in cross-functional teams, how wonderful Google design sprints are, and your last week’s pair programming sessions.

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Do, or do not. There is no try

October 12th, Wednesday morning. The second day of the AgileByExample conference in Warsaw, Poland. Agile people, agile talks, agile everything. Among them, an agile booth of one of the big Polish financial companies. Apparently, they are so agile that they even have printed a branded deck of planning poker cards.
Seeing all that, I wonder – I want to know their experience. It’s unbelievably interesting how such a massive company works using one of the techniques. ‘As for now, we have around 70 people working in Scrum, we got Scrum Masters and stuff, it’s so cool!’ – one of the guys says. I immediately follow up:

– All right, so how long have you been working like that and how are you doing?
– About a year or so. We do daily stand-ups, retrospectives, everybody enjoys it very much.
– OK, so 70 people sound like a pretty big organism. How do you coordinate the work?
– Well, it’s about 10 Scrum teams.
– But how do you scale all of this? How do these 10 Scrum teams work to achieve compatible increments? Are you using any framework for that, like SAF, or Nexus?
– Oh, we don’t scale yet, you know. They don’t sync much. We’re just trying it out.

Excuse me? And maybe each team has an assigned manager? I continued the conversation trying not to be a shameless boor, but the point is: It’s easy to gut everything meaningful out of Scrum and still call it Scrum. Or say that you’re just trying it out, because your people feel good about how you periodically have a nice sit-down called Scrum Planning.

But, as Master Yoda said: Do, or do not. There is no try. Scrum is about transforming the way your teams solve problems. It’s not about trying something cool for the sake of your company’s public relations. Don’t do that (or even try). If you really want to transform, then please understand the gravity of transformation.

In the event of failure

In March, we exhibited our company in Austin, TX, at the famous SXSW. It was the first time we participated in such a big trade show. A great atmosphere and wonderful people. If it only hadn’t been for the time and money we wasted on doing stuff the wrong way, I would say it was one of the best professional experiences I ever had.

Frankly speaking, organizing events is the least agile thing to do. There’s a finite, well-defined and nearly completely known list of elements that have to go just in place for a commercial event to go well. The list of risks is also finite and almost fully predictable. It’s a matter of executing the same procedures all over again. Not much space for experimentation.

That’s why people called event planners and producers exist. The value of their work is directly proportional to their experience, and the more experience they have, the better your event, and the easier the road to success.

In the meantime… we’re a software development company, so we thought we wouldn’t hire one, we would discover everything ourselves and would have a wonderful agile learning experience along the way.

Now we know.

Chief Agile… What?

I always found running a business and all the overhead stuff that comes along with it somewhat similar to politics. A lot of rigid skills involved, but also tons of uncertainty. A fertile soil for some agile teams to deal with it?

On the one hand, yes or maybe. But apart from the problem-solving side, a business, above all, needs the right decisions. They have to be based on merit, metrics, objective judgement, and awareness of possible consequences.

That shift of priority does not necessarily exclude acting in the spirit of agility. In the end, problems have to be solved quickly, iteratively, adaptively, and so on. It’s just that there’s something else, like firm leadership, or business metrics (these guys obviously were not without influence over this blog post), which is much more important. When the company has to pay all the employees, cover all the costs and still end up somewhere above the red line, the agile realm will and has to always come second.

By the way, just imagine an agile restaurant. What a horror would it be!

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Ding Dong Avon Calling

Welcome to Agile Mobile. We’re very happy that you’re with us. Before we introduce you to our latest mobile plans, let’s have a retrospective of your previous contracts, needs, use cases and favorite smartphones. We’ll find out about the things that went well, and the ones that you’d likely to improve.

Wait, what? This is confusing. Nobody buys a phone like that. Assuming that you still go to a store to do that – you come inside, you say that you want a new contract, you choose your favorite new-old iPhone or Galaxy, you sign, and you’re pretty much done. Sure, the assistant will briefly explore your consumer needs and may persuade you to buy the Huawei, which gives him or her a better sales bonus, but that’s it.

There’s a world of fairly simple business procedures in sales and customer service that just fall into place. Every time. Unless you sell hipster coffee appliances or cosmic tantric devices. In all other cases, not so much.

The Post-Agile Era: Context Is King

Marketers coined a saying: content is king. It meant that no matter how inventive you were with wrapping a piece of crap in glossy paper, it still remains a piece of crap. For the sake of all of us, agile practitioners, I’d like to introduce a modified version of that saying, for in our world, our work becomes a piece of crap if we’re not aware of what’s in the surroundings, not the inside.

All businesses have to earn money, but there are no two identical business settings. Sometimes procedures have to stay in place. Sometimes stuff has to go by a pattern. Not everything has to pivot every sprint. Some things need upfront planning, and doing it is not the end of the world.

There are also work routines that are so dynamic that literally none of the approaches from the agile arsenal can handle it. Think press newsrooms or communications management for institutions that depend on daily mood shifts in the public. It’s agility, but it’s not Agile.

So, praise Ken Schwaber, let us not be wasted, and let us be mindful of the context. Amen.

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