Posted By - Geoff Watts
It seems like every year there is a debate that “agile is dead” and this year seems no different.
And yet, the pre-requisites of agile approaches are more prevalent than ever. The need for agility is not going away any time soon.
Things are getting ever more fast-paced, ever more ambiguous and uncertain. And in these conditions the essence of agility is essential so I just don’t buy the idea that agile is dead.
When there is uncertainty, complexity and rapid change we need to:
- Gather a diverse group of people (ideally with all the skills to cover the full lifecycle)
- Make our best decision about what to do (usually formed in an experiment)
- Empower those people to try something (or multiple things in parallel)
- Set aside a short timebox
- Get some feedback (preferably as empirical as possible)
- Inspect and adapt to continuously improve
There are a few reasons why people are saying this and I think they are all justified to a degree.
Firstly there is a difference between Agile (with a capital A) and agile with a lower-case a (or ‘agility’ perhaps it’s better to say).
When people use the capital A version of the word they are usually referring to Scrum. This is because Scrum became the dominant flavour of approaches based on the Agile Manifesto. Therefore, unwittingly in many cases, the terms became unfortunately synonymous. However Scrum is Agile; Agile is more than Scrum
So while a lot has changed since Scrum became a thing 20+ years ago that has made Scrum less relevant and popular than it has been, the underlying agility that it espouses and enables is still as relevant as ever.
And – by the way – I’m not saying that Scrum is dead but even if it were my point is that doesn’t make “agile” dead.
The second reason why some people are saying that agile is dead is the supposed ‘failure’ of agile approaches for many organisations. Search for any real case study of agile scaling to the organisation and you won’t find one, despite the claims of many.
I think the lack of evidence of scaling agile to the enterprise is not the failure but rather the claim that it has (and even can or should) be done.
You’ll see some of the comments to my video “Scaling agile has never worked…and never will” state that agile was never meant to be anything other than a software development approach for a team. Now while I disagree with that from my perspective, it was never going to become a standard way of operating for an entire organisation.
This is because an organisation is always going to contain a range of contexts, some of which are more suitable to approaches like Scrum (for example) and some situations where a more up-front planning based approach would be suitable. There will always be some situations where adopting an inspect and adapt approach would incur unnecessary waste so it wouldn’t make sense for a one-size fits all approach to the whole enterprise.
This is why ORGANIC agility encourages greater ‘resilience’ and ‘coherence’ over ‘being agile’.
It might seem like I’m repeating myself here but there is a second aspect to the scaling side of things and that is it hasn’t really got past software development in many organisations. One of the most common things I still hear is “we need the business to really get on board”.
This is a fair argument in many cases…to a degree…but for me at least this is more a case of ‘implementing agility has failed’ rather than agile itself. I think too many coaches and consultants have been a little guilty of focusing on the approach rather than the value and this is ironically one of the reasons why things like SAFe gained traction. It felt like a way of making sure it actually took root within the organisation.
Following on from point 3, if you were to ask anyone 10-15 years ago to summarise what the Agile Manifesto was all about into three words they would likely say “People over Process” which is a shortening of the phrase “We value individuals and interactions over processes and tools” which what was actually written.
With the prevalence of heavyweight and bureaucratic methods such as SAFe becoming more synonymous with agile than anything else these days it is easy to sympathise with this point. But, agility as defined above is still relevant and ‘people over process’ is still essential to that way of working.
I alluded to some aspects of Scrum that have led to it becoming less popular and relevant. One of them is commercialisation – in particular the certification side of things. The arguments around certification require a whole new post but there is truth to the fact that the agile certification industry has a lot to answer for (both positive as well as negative by the way) and the proliferation of people who have been exposed to less than two days of training as preparation for complex roles and then charging a lot of money as agile coaches and agile consultants with very little experience has definitely been a problem.
On the other hand though, many people also argue that Christmas has died because of over-commercialisation, yet the idea of getting together with the people we love, taking time out to celebrate what is good and revelling in a little magic is certainly something that is still needed – perhaps more than ever.
There are a few more reasons but those are the top 5 I reckon yet I’m confident that agility itself is not dead and here’s why:
Look at how every company is scrambling to have the letters AI included in who they are, what they do and how they do it. It wasn’t long ago that companies needed to completely change how they operated due to a global pandemic or the distribution and supply chain chaos caused by a tanker in the Suez Canal.
Not only is change happening at a bigger scale but more frequently and the companies who are able to pivot quickly and have the resilient skillsets and mindsets to do so will survive.
Long gone are the days where the person with the most years of service knew the most about the problem and so tricky problems were escalated to the most senior person. While there may still be some examples of this in most organisations it’s the exception rather than the norm.
When problems are complex, we need an experimental and empirical approach to find the answers, and agility is essentially empiricism.
Cycle times have been shrinking rapidly for decades. The reaction when we started to become more agile at British Telecom back in 2001 was that “it’s impossible to get anything of value done in 90 days so you can forget about Scrum asking for 30 day sprints!”. And that was true, it took about 9 months to design, configure and deliver a server for a new project.
Those cycle times forced innovation to enable faster delivery and the pressure hasn’t stopped. 30 day sprints are now crazily slow for many organisations so in that sense it’s crazy to say that agile is dead.
When there is so much time pressure to deliver or miss the opportunity, agility (as defined above remember, not necessarily Scrum) is essential.
Leaders are required to be more agile than ever before in terms of their leadership approach. No longer is it OK to be a one-dimensional leader. A directive leader also needs to be able to adopt a coaching stance; a typical servant-leader now needs to also be demanding in the right context.
True agility is knowing the context and being able to adapt oneself to that context rather than belligerently say “this is who I am and how I do things”.
Check out this blog post for more on what “agile leadership” really is
Finally, because of all of the above, the need for teams that can deliver increments of value across the whole lifecycle is greater than ever. These teams need to be able to manage themselves to a much greater degree than ever before, need to span a wider range of skills than ever before and get from good to great quicker and better than ever before.
And remember, agile is all about the people. Great teams don’t particularly care about process. They will use process sure and they will create their own process to meet the context(s) they find themselves in…so long as they are supported and enabled to do what needs to be done by agile leaders.
The organisations that truly succeed are the ones who help everyone understand how make decisions and act coherently in different contexts, provide the right leadership for that context and enable autonomous teams to leverage their skills to thrive in the ever increasingly complex nature of work.
I think we need to embrace the fact that this debate is happening. The passion behind the arguments shows me that this is still a very important topic. Leaders know that the factors that caused the birth of agile approaches are not going away and their leadership and the culture of the organisation needs to match the situation.
If the word ‘agile’ doesn’t do it for you any more that’s OK. We’re looking for empiricism, resilience, effectiveness and coherence anyway.
Empiricism is the process of avoiding predictions and making decisions based on evidence and doing something.
Resilience is the ability to deal with results that you would rather not have happened or setbacks
Effectiveness is prioritising doing the right thing over being efficient in doing it. If efficiency is how well you climb the ladder, effectiveness is ensuring it’s leaning against the correct wall.
Coherence is adapting your approach to the needs of the context you are in. Whether that be product development approach or leadership stance. Acting incoherently not only leads to suboptimal results in the work but also motivational debt in your organisation.
I encourage you to forget about whether something is dead or not and instead, as we so often need to do, go back to the fundamentals of people over process and inspect and adapt.
Your people (and you) need the skills and confidence to be able to act effectively in the contexts you find yourselves in. It’s not so much about frameworks but contextual decision-making, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, courage, self-management, an adaptable mindset and the ability to collaborate effectively. Teams need to be able to navigate conflict and build trust, find ways to deliver and continuously improve. Product leaders need to explore and exploit, test and decide, experiment and plan.
There will be times when you need to make unilateral decisions, times when you need to ask for advice, times when you need to delegate and times when you need to just see what happens (within boundaries of course). All of these require different skills.
This is not the time to cut back on support and growth for yourself or your team.
If there isn’t a single consistent way of acting and you need to adjust your approach based on the context, how do you know if you are indeed acting coherently?
Well, employ empiricism would be my first piece of advice.
And I’m going to look at a couple of examples of that in my next couple of posts.