Agile Articles

Agile’s Great Schism

Agile hasn’t died, but the community is fractured. What’s the way forward?

With the seemingly never-ending news of layoffs in tech, and some of those targeted towards Agile groups, people ask, “Has Agile failed?” Indeed, we have been treated to many articles urging us to retire the term Agile, informing us that the revolution failed or, conversely, that Agile has actually won. Recently, Agile coauthor Jim Highsmith announced an effort to reimagine Agile. It’s clear that the Agile ecosystem is in turmoil, but why? I submit that we’ve lost our common story and beliefs, and we need to find new ways to align across the agile world lest we miss out on helping with the next great revolution – Artificial Intelligence. 

The Agile story is nothing short of a bottom-up revolution in business. I was part of the first wave of Agile and was faced with the challenge of applying it to some of the largest companies in the world. I’ve seen the evolution of business and product development, especially in the software space. It is difficult to communicate the impact of the Agile revolution during the last two decades to those who didn’t live through it. My first coding days in the ’90s were faced with Old Testament-level legalese. Requirements would map, screen by screen, field by field, in terse language. Testers sat in different buildings and had no say in estimates. Business analysts would translate all the requirements since developers were shielded from customers as if they were radioactive. Project managers would float estimates, inflating budgets. Changing code late in the process would cause havoc, and if something went wrong, all hell broke loose. The spec would be pulled up, and arguments would ensue. “That’s not in the spec.” Or “You can’t change that after we sign off on this spec.”  Thus the line in the Agile Manifesto “…working software over comprehensive documentation.” Creating software before Agile was torturous. 

We’ve come so far since then. An entire ecosystem of Agile tools and solutions was born from  XP, Scrum, Kanban, ScrumBan, Crystal, LeSS, and SAFe. Consultancies grew up, positioning themselves across the spectrum. We all repeated George Box’s mantra, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and cruised toward the future. That is our story, and with it, we changed the world. 

So what happened? I hypothesize that our community grew too large for this short manifesto. Our community comprises thousands of companies and tens of thousands of Agile practitioners. It’s difficult for a community to retain cohesion when it gets too large. Coaches are undoubtedly familiar with the Dunbar number, named after the British anthropologist. Dunbar suggested that the number of social relationships a human can maintain is limited by the amount of time and cognitive resources available for social interaction, putting that number at around 150 people. As groups get larger and subdivide, they lose cohesion; yet, other communities, such as doctors and lawyers, find ways to coordinate actions across their vast ranks. How do they do it? 

I recently came upon Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling 2015 book Sapiens. Although I questioned several of his positions, I found his take on the importance of a common myth or shared story useful. Harari states that a common story can create a bond that helps humans scale beyond the Dunbar number. Harari is big on the words “myth” and “legal fiction” when talking about companies, agreements, and even the law. To me, the better phrase is “common story.” One only has to violate a nation’s or a company’s laws to see that the consequences of that “fiction” are very real. 

What is Agile’s common story or set of beliefs? To scale our institutions, modern society has created structures and stories that help bind their actions to a standard, regardless of context. A doctor from Texas will likely employ the same techniques and knowledge and ascribe to the same general codes as a doctor from New York. There will be disagreements and varied approaches, but if a doctor strays too far, he or she will be disciplined by the community. A doctor could lose their license. A lawyer could be disbarred. 

If we accept that a key to creating a functioning culture is a common story and the enforcement of its principles, what happens when those principles are violated? There are currently no enforcement mechanisms in Agile, Software Engineering, or product development. The closest we have are certifications, but even then, there are disagreements. Which cert is the best? Do they really prove anything? We talk about an Agile mindset, but how do you enforce it? Or do you? 

When I started in Agile it was easier to define who we were by contrasting our beliefs, as laid out in the Manifesto, with the prevailing control-based processes of the day. Our conferences were filled with excited people practicing their interpretation of these codes, modernizing business from the ground up. Our story and mission: “Waterfall was bad, control-based processes are too much, and we are looking to uncover better ways of doing software.”  

As the Agile community tried to tackle the big companies, the techniques diverged more and more, and some practitioners were and are accused of heresy against the Agile mindset. The Great Schism has occurred, and we’ve all retreated to our sanctuaries.

The problem is that transformations are challenging. They take time, executive buy-in, and, most of all, lots of cash. Now Agilists have a new challenger for these precious funds: Artificial Intelligence. AI has crashed the gates, and our fiddling time is over. Countless dollars are now being routed to the AI revolution, with over 70,000 companies at last count. Like the Internet revolution, everything will be sprinkled with AI holy water, regardless of whether it’s necessary or not. Our refrigerators, toasters, and washing machines no longer simply connect to the Internet (how quaint!) but will use their AI brains to tell you to restock the milk, to ensure that your toast is the perfect shade of brown, and to alert you to the red sock in your load of whites. 

“AI everywhere” is the story shared in the C-suites of America and beyond, driven by both the opportunities of this great tech and the fear of being left behind, similar to what drove the Agile revolution years ago. Yet, Agilists are still wondering how we will leverage an even more complex technology stack with outdated IT systems and overly complex processes. 

“If you failed at agile, you’ll fail at AI”

Jim Highsmith, Agile Manifesto Co-author

Defunding Agile transformations (among nearly ever other previously initiative) might score funding for AI projects, but those projects are every bit as likely to succumb to market misalignment, poor execution, and team morale issues as traditional software projects were in the last two decades. 

Agilists would do well to get out of their camps and come together to form a different story and to create new structures and beliefs to unite us. I welcome the efforts of Highsmith and others in re-imagining agility. The technology landscape remains an increasingly complex domain, with business leaders searching for ways to survive and thrive. Agilists are in a perfect position to assist and shine in an AI-dominated marketplace if we can put down our arms, end the internecine War of Models, and re-discover the common story we share. With that compelling story, we can get back to doing what we do best – helping people uncover better ways of humanely creating awesome products and services.

Agile Articles

Travel is Back…but should it be?

We have reached the rubicon of this pandemic: the world of travel has returned. have the return to travel. I’ve certainly travelled more in this last 3 months than the two years behind them. My first travel this year was to Minnesota. Let me provide some sage advice. If you want to do release planning in person, don’t choose Minnesota in January.

Picture this: myself and another coach were flying into Minneapolis. Things were going well, though we had heard of some diceyness on the ground. The landing time came and passed, and I and another passenger realized that this wasn’t going well. Then the announcement – we can’t land because ice on the freeway. Now I don’t need to go into the whole circus, since so many of us have had this experience of late. In short, I was redirected to the even colder metropolis of Fargo, North Dakota. Despite the wonderful people, the IT systems of Delta Airlines (yes I’m naming names) caused even more issues with our hoteling (where IS that voucher? Still waiting). Half of the group didn’t make it to canceled flights, but we saved the event by some skillful pivoting and use of the incredible Mural tool. Moral: don’t travel in January to a winter climate. Pick another location. The cash-difference won’t be that significant, and you’ll get everyone there, and you’ll have a morale boost due to location warmness. Can you say Florida? Maybe California?

So the pattern seems to be leaning back into travel, but the copious inefficacies of that mode of meeting were brought back to me in spades. The amount of time I spent, the client spent, and my company in missing my time around, plus some recuperation time as I did acquire a cold during this sojourn. Add to this the environmental cost of numerous plan trips and Ubers and the return on investment plummets quickly.

I do hope that the “New World” we’re in does not crave to return to the ways of old. Commuting extracts a terrible toll, and while it is indeed much nicer and effective to be with your teams, there’s simply no call for it day in, day out, for 40+ hours a week. I support a hybrid model, where teams can gather where they want quarterly with monthly gatherings. These planning events, such as release planning, portfolio planning are high bandwidth, high stakes events that benefit from in person. However, even that has limits considering the importance of outsourcing to other geographies. Flying people to or from India on a frequent basis is obviously cost prohibitive, and yet what are we to do? I suggest every few years getting together with folks outside of your country. these sorts of trips are wonderful and add a benefit of cultural exposure that domestic travel doesn’t provide. I’ve been to India twice, and Sweden for work, and on all of those trips picked up a lot more than I could have over the phone.

Regardless, the need for multimodal communications and solutions is the new need. Those companies that adapt have a competitive advantage for the foreseeable future, improving their employees life’s and reducing the impact on the environment.


In-Person Work Gets Scrutiny

There is a deluge of articles coming from every corner of the Internet about when COVID “ends” what will resume and what will not. In this Forbes article, they say maybe never. While I never like to say never, Forbes has a point – in person is being over-romanticized in our current pandemic. Was it ever that great?

Corporate education, like higher education, was certainly heading in the direction of more online learning long before the Covid-19 disruption. But it was more of a plodding pace. The past two months, of course, there’s been no choice; everyone is online…The expense and time of bringing together groups of employees for in-person training is exorbitant in comparison to high-quality online versions. Air travel, hotels, windowless conference rooms and convention centers, the risk liability of group training events and, frankly, the poor quality and unmeasurable outcomes of in-person corporate training have always been complaints. 

Forbes, May, 2020

Cost-cutting will be a big deal as well….

It costs $22,000 a year to provide an office space to every worker. Companies who go remote will cut $20m of real estate expense every year.

Then, of course, there was the big news that Twitter announced that workers may not EVER have to come back to the office. This quote from Human Resources head Jennifer Christie was particularly interesting:

“…the company would “never probably be the same” in the structure of its work. “People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way,” Christie said. “Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”

Buzzfeed Interview, May 2020

The idea that we’ll never meet in person is ridiculous. In-person conveys an intensity that no other media currently can. While advances in Virtual Reality are compelling and will do more to spur on this trend, in-person engagements will always have a warmth to them that is fundamental to the human experience. However, I doubt that in-person work will soon return to the dominant de facto standard of the butts-in-chairs, open-office plans that it was pre-COVID. This is doubly true for training.

Sunk costs are the primary variable. Big players such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook have sunk tons of money into very expensive perks for an in-person experience. Free everything, just stay in the office. How quickly will they abandon these investments depends on the market place. Free ice-cream and cappuccinos vs. a two-hour commute each way and exorbitant property costs – which will win? Experts say that elevators and mass transit are the worst places to be right now. Anyone that’s worked in big major cities knows that people aren’t shuffling up 75 flights of stairs to get to their cubical – its all elevators, and they get very crowded. Add to this the idea that COVID-19 might flare up time and again, causing rolling shutdowns, makes finding a strategy in dealing with pandemics in the same league as disaster recovery efforts that have existed for decades. (see Update below for more on this).

My guess is that we’ll see a hybrid for now. Those craving team experiences will rush to rejoin in-person work, others will lay back if their employer allows. Companies will then start hearing their employees and candidates, and start looking outside their zip code for remote talent. As an Agilist, I used to see this as a problem. You know, the Manifesto. But that document, like any human creation, has its time. While we don’t need to change the original manifesto, we need to start asking questions around how we can update our understanding, and how we can change our practices to fulfill the intent of the manifesto and match the current reality. There are benefits to the environment, people’s stress levels, and companies that can access larger pools of talent.

In the end, Twitter (and Facebook now) might have the first-mover advantage in the new hottest Silicon Valley perk: not being in Silicon Valley.

Update, May 21st: Facebook just announced that they are also allowing working from home options (with lower salaries). I do hope that this raises all boats. A developer in Cheapville, KS, should earn a better-than-average salary for Kansas, but not the megamillions that they need to survive in San Fransisco.


Remote work on HBR

Harvard Business Review had a great article on leadership ina virtual age. Leading and managing others can present some unique challenges. Check out quote:

“Last week, during a coaching call, a senior director lamented, “I’m stalled because I don’t know how to connect with my manager on the less formal stuff — the way I used to.” He’s not alone. Manager distancing is frustrating employees and stalling work.”

They go on to list six techniques to make work better remotely for those with direct reports.

My favorite is the first one: Bridge distance through frequent connections.

“Instead of simply asking his direct reports to get in touch with him as needed, Yuval proactively manages the frequency of connection. This way, he always has a finger on the pulse of his team, especially those directs hesitant to reach out and add more to their boss’s plate during a crisis.”

I’ll let you find the other five tips here – well worth your read.