What went wrong with Agile?

People claim that Agile is dead. It is not but there sure has been made many mistakes implementing Agile. This is the first of a series of blog posts about Agile mishaps.
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Lately there have been a number of postings on LinkedIn claiming that Agile is dead. What nonsense! If you understand what Agile is, you would know that this statement is similar to claiming that evolution has ended. It hasn’t! Most likely the claimers are pursuing their own agendas of promoting “their thing” of what organisations should do next – their silver bullet to organisational resilience.

That said, there is still a grain of truth in the statement as “Agile” has become one of the most misused terms in the past many years. As an example, four years ago many of us got a good laugh by reading a job posting from Landbrugsstyrelsen (the Danish governmental agency for agriculture) where the word “Agile” was repeated 25 times in the relatively short text. Where it is easy to point fingers at the author of this text, it is merely a symptom of what has been going on – and still is going on: the commoditisation of Agile, and the thinking that some approach will become Agile by calling it Agile enough times.

Many mishaps have been made as a result of this commoditisation. Not only by newcomers entering the market for a quick gain, but also by thought leaders, pioneers and practitioners. In this series of blog posts, I will address some of these mishaps and discuss the cause and consequences of each of them.

Though I might call for a rebranding of Agile, I am not into promoting “my thing” as better (actually, “my thing” does not exist). My agenda is to hold up a mirror and ask thought leaders, pioneers, practitioners, consultants, trainers and coaches to look at themselves and ask: “What the heck are we doing?” I wish for lowering the amount of bullshit, snake oil, silver bullets and religion in the Agile market.

No matter what, there seems to be disillusionment in the market which relates to unkept promises about what Agile would do for the ones applying it. In the remainder of this blog post I will be addressing this as well as the origin of Agile. If this is less interesting for you then move on to the next blog post addressing Agile Mishap #1: Do it by the book!

Promises – kept or broken?

The past few years I have facilitated leadership cohorts for clients as well as publicly. In the initial meeting of these half-year programs my co-facilitators and I always start by asking the participants about their experiences applying Agile. Which of the promises of Agil was kept and which were broken? In general we have heard some of the following: Kept (meaning we generally got):

  • Higher transparency
  • Fast decision making
  • Clearer priorities
  • Better collaboration

Broken (meaning we generally did not get):

  • More customer orientation
  • Self-leading teams
  • Faster time to market
  • More innovation
  • More empowerment to the teams
  • Simplicity
  • Less meetings

As it indicates, Agile is not as smooth a journey as promised and despite some successes, it is not the guaranteed magic touch to make your organisation innovative and competitive. Agile methodologies alone do not guarantee any results. Results may come depending on how you approach the implementation of Agile. To do this successfully, you must know where it comes from so you can make the best possible decisions.

The roots of Agile

Use of the word “Agile” for something that relates to software development processes was the result of a “mini conference on lightweight approaches” held at Snowbird ski resort in Utah, February 2001. This gave us the Agile Manifesto for Software Development. But the roots go much further back. Actually we see traces of Agile in the work of defining the Toyota Production System in the 1950s but the real hallmark for sure is the 1986 Harvard Business Review article: The New New Product Development Game (Takeuchi & Nonaka, 1986).

During their research Takeuchi and Nonaka analysed the development process of six specific products: A Fuji-Xerox photocopying machine, a Canon photocopying machine, a Honda 1200 cc city car, a NEC personal computer, a Canon single-lens reflex camera and a Canon lens shutter camera. Notice here, all of them are mechanical-electrical products – some but not all containing software. They stated:

This new emphasis on speed and flexibility calls for a different approach for managing new product development. The traditional sequential or “relay race” approach to product development […] may conflict with the goals of maximum speed and flexibility. Instead, a holistic or “rugby” approach – where a team tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth – may better serve today’s competitive requirements.

They shared that leading companies showed six characteristics in managing their new product development processes including:

  • Built-in instability
  • Self-organising project teams
  • Overlapping development phases
  • “Multilearning”, meaning team members acquiring broad knowledge and not only being specialists
  • Subtle control
  • Organisational transfer of learning

They also adapted the rugby term “Scrum” to provide a metaphor of the mindset and behaviour of the leading companies and their staff of employees, and hence the inspiration for one of the most successful Agile frameworks so far was born.

Agile has its roots in mechanical-electrical engineering and I guess that it only became so closely connected with software development because the 17 original authors of the Agile Manifesto all were related to the software industry. Agile is a paradigm for development of complex products unrelated to which technologies are in use, and as such there is no need for modifying Agile for hardware development or providing a special Agile HW framework. This is where we are going next, discussing Agile Mishap #1: Do it by the book!

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Overly use of the word Agile

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