I watch every few years as someone tries to crown a new king. You know what? Agile is dead, but it is also alive and well.
Here are some personal observations on this contentious topic for those of you who are new to Agile.
The word Agile was never intended to denote prescriptive frameworks. In this context, the word just comes from the Agile Manifesto, which was a conversation between some smart people who shared what was working for them as they managed software development projects. The authors “met to talk, ski, relax, and try to find common ground.” It included a small subset of the people who were following new, non-prescriptive, highly documented approaches. It was never intended to be considered Moses coming down from the mountain—it was written on a three-day weekend!
And don’t get me started on Scrum. It was an accidental success! In 2000, I was a project manager for one of the first documented Scrum projects. It was inherently flawed, but it was still held up as a shining example. Granted, I love the simplicity of Scrum, but as Ken Schwaber is famously quoted about Scrum, “Two days to learn, a lifetime to master.” Too many people have learned Scrum, and too few have any idea what it takes to master it.
I have a confession to make: I SUCCESSFULLY DELIVERED PROJECTS USING A WATERFALL APPROACH! There, I said it. We old-timers, like those who wrote the Agile Manifesto, actually saw success before the Agile Manifesto miraculously was written. We managed mission-critical projects and ADAPTED our waterfall approach based on the changes in the marketplace. In the late ’90s and the dot-com boom, market pressure forced us to think differently. We needed to deliver new websites and functionality every week in order to keep up with our competitors. It was not about “being Agile”; it was about doing whatever we had to do to get something out this Friday. Here is what Agile sounded like back then:
“Hey, let’s meet every day and make sure we are on track,” and “Oh yeah, the development guys say that QA is slowing everything down; let’s start automating the common test cases so we can release faster,” or “Don’t bother writing specifications for three months; we will have missed our deadline by then, so let’s just sit down and design the screen together, and I will show it to you when I have it working.”
IT WAS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE—IT WAS COMMON SENSE AND MADE GOOD BUSINESS SENSE, TOO!
I used the phrase new to Agile earlier. By that I mean that if you have only experienced Agile in the last 10 years, you need to realize that any company that has adopted an Agile framework in that time period is a late, late adopter. Companies that needed to develop software quickly in order to be competitive were being Agile long before without worrying about terminology or frameworks. You don’t hear those companies saying Agile is dead. Agile is now in their DNA, and they don’t even call it Agile. It’s just how they run their businesses. In early 2000, I worked at a company using a RAD and JAD approach to software development. Those approaches pre-date Agile by at least a decade but did not have the appeal of the Scrum terminology. They were similar and better in many ways. We did not call what we were doing Agile. We just called it project management using rapid application development.
I have written this post at least a thousand times in my head as I watch this industry that I love get lost in terminology and frameworks. I am told now that I can’t call myself a consultant. I have to call myself a coach. I feel as if coaching distances me from my customer’s success or failures; as a consultant, I have chosen to be part of the journey. Just my opinion. I NOW HAVE TO BE CERTIFIED AND LICENSED IN A FRAMEWORK IF I WANT TO TEACH SOMEONE SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT BEST PRACTICES. My 20+ years of experience is less important than if I can memorize the Scrum guide backward and forward…and don’t even get me started on scaling.
I love what I do, which is making organizations and teams more successful. I am confident that if I had never read the Agile Manifesto or the Scrum guide, I would still be as successful as I am today. I jumped on the Agile bandwagon because it just made good sense, and it gave me and many other people labels for things we were already doing.
I wish now that there was a new king so I could separate myself from the noise, but unfortunately, the new king would look a lot like the old one.
One last piece of advice—not for coaches but for those of you who are still optimistic that Agile is alive and well:
- Identify the problem you are trying to solve.
- Ask someone with a little grey in their hair what has worked before to solve their problem.
- Try it.
- If it works, great, if it doesn’t, try something else.
An Agile framework can make you feel Agile; only people can make you be Agile.
Dan is the President of Cape Project Management, Inc. He has been managing software development and other projects since the ’90s. In 2010, he founded a company whose sole focus is to make his clients successful. He is passionate, committed, and works with lots of smart people who think like him. If you are looking for ways to make your business more successful, I suggest you give him a call or drop him a note. Remember, advice is free, until it isn’t.