Agility vs ‘agile’

Yes, more of this please. From Dave Thomas, one of the originators of the ‘agile manifesto’, who I have a newfound respect for after reading this essay.

Agile Is Dead (Long Live Agility)

However, since the Snowbird meeting, I haven’t participated in any Agile events, I haven’t affiliated with the Agile Alliance, and I haven’t done any “agile” consultancy. I didn’t attend the 10th anniversary celebrations.

Why? Because I didn’t think that any of these things were in the spirit of the manifesto we produced…

Let’s look again at the four values:

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools
Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation
Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation, and
Responding to Change over Following a Plan

The phrases on the left represent an ideal—given the choice between left and right, those who develop software with agility will favor the left.

Now look at the consultants and vendors who say they’ll get you started with “Agile.” Ask yourself where they are positioned on the left-right axis. My guess is that you’ll find them process and tool heavy, with many suggested work products (consultant-speak for documents to keep managers happy) and considerably more planning than the contents of a whiteboard and some sticky notes…

Back to the Basics

Here is how to do something in an agile fashion:

What to do:

  • Find out where you are
  • Take a small step towards your goal
  • Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
  • Repeat

How to do it:

When faced with two of more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.

And that’s it. Those four lines and one practice encompass everything there is to know about effective software development. Of course, this involves a fair amount of thinking, and the basic loop is nested fractally inside itself many times as you focus on everything from variable naming to long-term delivery, but anyone who comes up with something bigger or more complex is just trying to sell you something.

I think people tricked by others trying to sell them something isn’t actually the only, or even the main, reason people get distracted from actual agility by lots of ‘agile’ rigamarole which is anything but.

I think there are intrinsic distracting motivations and interests in many organizations too: The need for people in certain positions to feel in control; the need for blame to be assigned when something goes wrong; just plain laziness and desire for shortcuts and magic bullets; prioritizing all of these things (whether you realize it or not) over actual product quality.

Producing good software is hard, for both technical and social/organizational reasons. But my ~18 years of software engineering (and life!) experience lead me to believe that there are no ‘tool’ shortcuts or magic bullets, you do it just the way Thomas says you do it: you just do it, always in small iterative steps always re-evaluating next steps and always in continual contact with ‘stakeholders’ (who need to put time and psychic energy in too).  Anything else is distraction at best but more likely even worse, misdirection.

And there’s a whole lot of distraction and misdirection labelled ‘agile’.


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