Agile won the war but lost the peace

By Allan Kelly

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“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, … in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still” President Ronald Reagan, Farewell to the Nation, January 11, 1989

Back in 2001 when the word agile appeared it was a manifesto – a set of ideas, the term “agile” also served to group a bunch of tools and techniques which could make software development “better.” More importantly to my mind, it painted a picture of a shining city on a hill we all wanted to live in.

Agile was a place you wanted to go, it was a journey you wanted to make, it offered hope. More important as the tools – sprints, stand-ups, etc. – and approaches – just in time, last responsible moment, test first – were the stories agile people – including myself – told. These were stories of a better world, of that shining city on the hill.

And not unimportantly, in a world of search engines “agile” gave you something to search for. Before agile you could search “make my software development team better” or “software development process improvement” but what you got was a very mixed offering. AltaVista (and the young Google) would suggest links for CMMI, or ISO-9000, or vendor tools to “fix it”, or proper design, or… there was no coherent message. Most of these ideas resolved around senior people making big decisions and then imposing them.

Then along came agile: it offered to involve everyone, everyone made decisions, everyone was happy and we could all go to that shining city on a hill – more than that, we all had an important part to play in building that city.

Today everyone is agile. Nobody is promoting traditional (“waterfall”) working, CMMI, PMI and everyone else has incorporated agile (to some degree). Not being agile is about as popular as leprosy.

But very few of us have reached the shining city on the hill.

Along the way agile has been watered down, in becoming compatible with everything else it is less different, it is less attractive, fewer workers are motivated to take the journey. And as “the powers that be” have found ways to bring control-and-command back to teams (maybe in the name of scaling) fewer people are invited to help build the city.

Ironically, as we (the agile community) has made agile management friendly we have made it less worker friendly. Today senior managers “get agile” and want their organisations to be agile. But those at the code face seem to have less and less motivation. And those in the middle… sometimes they seem to want to change just enough to declare success but no so much that things really change.

For some people agile has become completely discredited – I wrote Why do Dev’s hate agile? last year and I’m presenting it in London next week. Agile isn’t a shining city on a hill, agile is trench warfare.

And Googling “agile” presents a long long list of links with less and less coherence.

Agile won the war. Agile is respectable and everyone is agile now. Big business rush to be agile, Governments want to be agile, blue-chip consultancies will sell you agile.

But agile lost the peace.

While many say they are agile, few software developers live in a shiny city. The place they live in might be better than the place they came from but it doesn’t live up to the dream many of us shared 15 years ago. Agile has become an excuse for failure and a thing to be imposed.

The thing that passes for “agile” today is too often a watered down version of the original dream. Worse still, we don’t have a word to describe that shining city we all want to get to. Russians have an expression for this:

“We wanted the best, it turned out like always.” Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, Prime Minister Russia, 1998-1999

Me? – I still dream of that shining city on the hill, I still believe agile is the right way to get there, I still wave the flag for agile but more and more I feel the need to explain myself and tell people that the agile I dream of is not the agile they may experience.

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