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Reclaiming Agile

Dave Nicolette
Reading: Reclaiming Agile

Everyone loves Agile. You can tell, because everyone is doing Agile.

Or are they?

There’s always been some debate about just what “Agile” is supposed to mean, despite the conciseness and clarity of the four value statements in the Agile Manifesto. But in recent years, the debate has grown heated.

The Two Camps of Agile

The Agile community is divided. It bifurcated several years ago. Camp A comprises those who want to sell packaged Agile to Late Majority and Laggard adopters. They’re all about ceremonies, events, artifacts, practices, frameworks, and certifications.

Camp B comprises those who emphasize the core values and principles of agility as expressed in the Manifesto, and as those values and principles have evolved through mindful practice over the years. These are the people you hear saying they want to “take back Agile.” They mean they want to take it back from Camp A.

I find it interesting that all the authors of the Agile Manifesto are in Camp B. I suspect there’s information to be gleaned from that fact.

My son, who is now in the workforce full-time as a software developer, asked me what “agile software development” is supposed to mean, in a nutshell. I said it meant taking a step, assessing the outcome, learning from that outcome, adjusting our practices, and then taking the next step. He thought that made sense.

Another way to say it is that “agility” basically means an organization has fostered a culture of continual improvement. The alternative is an organization in which people simply learn a defined process and follow it by rote, over and over again. It makes no difference if their process has the word “agile” in its name.

People have expressed the same idea using different terms for quite a long time. It’s the same general idea as double-loop organizational learning; as Plan-Do-Study-Act (formerly known as Plan-Do-Check-Act); as Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide and Act loop; in a narrower context as the Five Focusing Steps in the Theory of Constraints. The general idea plays a role in many models of human decision-making and organizational improvement.

In a 2014 article entitled “Time To Kill Agile”, “Pragmatic” Dave Thomas writes:

Here is how to do something in an agile fashion:

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

There’s that loop again, expressed in slightly different terms. Dave also writes:

Let’s abandon the word agile to the people who don’t do things. Instead, let’s use a word that describes what we do. Let’s develop with agility.

Camp A is interested in qualifying for the label, Agile. Camp B is interested in working with agility.

Another Manifesto author, Alistair Cockburn, writes in a 2015 article entitled “Rediscovering the Heart of Agile“:

All through 2014, I found myself saying: “Agile has become overly decorated. Let’s scrape away those decorations for a minute, and get back to the center of agile. […] [I] found that when I was encouraging getting back to the center/heart/spirit of agile, I kept emphasizing these four things…”

  • Collaborate
  • Deliver
  • Reflect
  • Improve

The folks at Industrial Logic, who have been involved with Agile since before the the idea was codified in the Manifesto, have another model. It’s based on four key ideas:

  • Make People Awesome
  • Make Safety a Prerequisite
  • Deliver Value Continuously
  • Experiment & Learn Rapidly

So, we see a recurring theme in Camp B. It’s one variation or another on the idea of continual improvement based on observing our results, learning from them, adjusting our practices, and moving forward again.

Notice what’s missing: New job titles, new process frameworks, new artifacts, new ceremonies.

Can the two Agile camps be reconciled?

This notion of “taking back agile,” of “working with agility” rather than trying to “do Agile”, might lead us to follow a pattern based on the four or five repeated steps in the various models for improvement. To address the needs of large organizations that are only now interested in agility, we have to apply the core values in a practical way.

It can be done.

Plan…Find out where you are…Observe, Orient…Reflect…

This implies you need a way to understand both your present state and your goal state. The notion of direction comes to mind. This reminds me of the LeadingAgile Compass, the basis of our model for helping organizations evolve toward their goal state.

The four quadrants of the Compass describe the way organizations understand the needs of their customers and how they deliver value to those customers. Many people aren’t aware of where their organization currently stands, and some may not have a clear idea of where they want the organization to be. The Compass can be very helpful in this situation.

Do…Take a small step toward your goal…Decide, Act…Collaborate, Deliver…Deliver Value Continuously…

To accomplish this, we need to have a working definition of value. We need to have a stable, predictable method of delivery. We need to have measurements so that we will have a basis for assessing our outcomes and learning from them.

All of that reminds me of the LeadingAgile Roadmap. The idea is that the most effective way to achieve organizational transformation is to begin with delivery and build from there. Based on the triad of structure, governance, and metrics & tools, predictable delivery leads to trust. Trust leads to a loosening of formal controls. Autonomy leads to greater adaptability.

Study, Act…Adjust your understanding based on what you learned…Reflect, Improve…Experiment & Learn Rapidly…Observe, Orient…

For this, we need some sort of quantitative or qualitative measures so that we can compare our original state with our current state and see if we’re headed toward our goal state.

This is baked into the LeadingAgile Roadmap. The triad of structure, governance, and metrics & tools provides a structure within which continuous flow can occur, methods and processes (governance) to achieve delivery, and an objective basis to assess progress.

The whole repeated process of delivering with agility is encapsulated in the LeadingAgile Journey. The model is based on five milestones we call Basecamps.

What Are The LeadingAgile Basecamps?

Basecamp 1: Getting Predictable. Focus on teams, backlogs, and working tested software. We’re interested in gaining clarity about the backlog, achieving predictable planning, and quantifying delivery performance. Usually, a key area of focus is breaking organizational dependencies, which tend to be a high cost factor in most organizations.

Basecamp 2: Reducing Batch Size. Focus on release planning, technical practices, and flow-based metrics. Working in large batches is second only to dependencies as a cost factor.

Basecamp 3: Breaking Dependencies. We’ve already addressed organizational dependencies above the team level. Now the organization is positioned to address cross-team dependencies in the IT area. This enables a focus on legacy refactoring, continuous deployment, and DevOps.

Basecamp 4: Increasing Local Autonomy. At this stage, the organization is positioned to enable team-level autonomy without the risk that is incurred when people attempt to introduce autonomy without preparing the organization to support it (a fundamental error in most Camp A solutions). This involves team-based funding, software capitalization, and adaptive governance.

Basecamp 5: Investing to Learn. The organization is now optimized to support continual learning and adaptive creation of emergent solutions. Focus is on outcome-based, innovation-focused design thinking. The end result is an organization in which double-loop learning is the norm.

The approach pragmatically acknowledges the realities of large organizations without compromising the core values of agility. It’s a win-win.

Next Outcomes Over Being Busy

Dave Nicolette has been an IT professional since 1977. He has served in a variety of technical and managerial roles. He has worked mainly as a consultant since 1984, keeping one foot in the technical camp and one in the management camp.

Comments (4)

  1. David Cartagena
    Reply

    Great post Dave, and not just because your name is also Dave! haha.
    I could not agree more with your points on seeking opportunities to continuously improve and not focus on artifacts and ceremonies.

    An example of this I’ve run into is trying to discuss how remote companies can employ and practice agility within a scrum alliance discussion forum only to be called out on “how the manifesto clearly states that remote companies can not practice true Agile”.

    Which in my opinion is nonsense as you mentioned the true heart of agile is the focus on continually improving through small steps and experimentation and this can also be applied to organizational internal practices and management not just product development.

    Loved the article!

    Reply
  2. Mike Burns
    Reply

    “Plan…Find out where you are…Observe, Orient…Reflect…”

    Sounds a lot like

    “Plan, Do, Check, Act”

    Deming and Toyota knew what they were talking about back in the 50’s, just took the rest of us a little while to understand what they meant.

    Reply
  3. clarke ching
    Reply

    Hi ya Dave. I think you’re missing a third camp. There are, I think, a big bunch of people who work with bigger, older organisations and who also get Agile and have figured out how to work in those bigger, organisations.

    Reply
    • Dave Nicolette
      Reply

      Hi Clarke. Sure. Wouldn’t they be included in Camp B? Or maybe they don’t really pay attention to Camp A.

      Reply

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