20 years ago, just about this time of year, 17 software engineers created the Agile Manifesto as a better way to develop software products. Agile’s ascent in popularity over the last two decades has changed how the entire technology industry builds products, allocates resources, and delivers value to its customers. The benefits have been tremendously positive. However, as Agile has become mainstream, it’s morphed into a buzzword thrown around by consultants trying to make a buck, marketing firms trying to capture SEO, and executives trying to control it. Agile itself has turned into an industrial complex which is suffocating the very principles it was founded upon.
As Agile made its way from small engineering teams up to C-Suite discussions and into the board room, executives do what executives do best, control it. They redefine it, put processes around it, make standards to roll out company wide. These are all against Agile's very core and what its founders were trying to get away from 20 years ago. There is a name for controlling, documenting, and putting processes around software development, it’s called Waterfall, which is the very reason why the manifesto was created in the first place. Waterfall does not work for developing software.
Trying to control Agile is like trying to bite your own teeth, it is a non-sequitur, doesn’t make any sense.
Executives, consultants, and business analysts try to control and put in guardrails in order to reduce risk, which uncovers the real cultural issue: a deep seeded lack of trust and insecurity in your teams. If you find yourself trying to control Agile to get better results, you most likely don’t have a software development problem, you’ve got a cultural problem.
What is even worse than trying to control Agile is using its name as a label against its core principles. This further cheapens the term and introduces confusion for everyone. Here are some examples:
Martin Fowler, one of the founders of The Manifesto, sums it up in a 2018 speech on dark agile:
Our challenge at the moment isn't making agile a thing that people want to do, it's dealing with what I call faux-agile: agile that's just the name, but none of the practices and values in place. Ron Jeffries often refers to it as "Dark Agile", or specifically "Dark Scrum". This is actually even worse than just pretending to do agile, it's actively using the name "agile" against the basic principles of what we were trying to do, when we talked about doing this kind of work in the late 90s and at Snowbird.
So you really want to adopt Agile, what should you do?
The first thing to accept is that Agile is a philosophy, not a process. You can’t blast it out in an email or declare it at the annual all hands meeting. You and your colleagues must commit to the Agile philosophy internally, it really comes from a place of trust.
The Agile Manifesto is actually quite simple:
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
When someone tries to implement a process or exhibit control to mitigate risk, remind them of the manifesto and the company’s commitment to Agile philosophy.
A great place to start incorporating this mindset is in recruiting. Screen for an Agile mindset when hiring managers or executives. Are candidates trusting of their employees and teams? Are they able to set a vision and goals and let others execute? Or are they controlling? Do they want to come in and establish new processes on how to do things?
There is a lot of basic data you can see in the symptoms of process systems gone awry.
These symptoms typically mean Agile has lost its way. Dive into the issues further and there is a good chance you’ll see written, or unwritten, process, control, and risk mitigation strategies implemented that are killing your creativity.
At the end of Martin Fowler's speech, he makes it clear exactly how to live agile principles and not control them.
"Should the original 17 people that wrote the manifesto take a special place in this ongoing effort?" The thing I'm proud of, that we the 17 authors did, is that we said "no". We wrote the manifesto. We did a nice piece of work, we'll be part of what goes on in the future, but we have no special role in that future. That role has to grow forwards. We said "new people will come in and do great things", which is indeed what happened.
Admios has been in business for 16 years, founded a few years after the Manifesto on the premise that these principles provide a better way to develop software and bring value and innovation to customers and engineering teams. We encourage you to join us to continue to fight for the Agile philosophy just like its founding fathers did two decades ago.