Let's retire Agile

June 03, 2015

Thomas Paine

Poor agile. It started off with good intentions rooted in simplicity and common sense. It wasn't long before it got productized, scaled, enhanced, sold, bought, and a few years later agile became Agile. The difference is only the case of one letter, but that betrays just how drastically different the two are.

The main victim and perpetrator of this crime remain organizations looking for a quick fix to solve deep-rooted problems, who turn to Agile as a way to make things better, faster, and cheaper, without ever willing to take a look in the mirror and truly change. They buy Agile because somebody sold it to them as the solution to their problems, and worst, they sold it as an easy solution. In reality, they just agreed to put lipstick on a pig.

The lipstick is a nice one - big rooms with whiteboards everywhere, a fresh installation of JIRA, daily meetings, promises of biweekly software - it's hard to argue with any of this. The pig, though, is everywhere.

It's in Vendor Management where a contract takes months to get signed, it's with Finance which needs a detailed plan before they give you money, it's in Infrastructure where a server needs 12 forms to be filled before it can be commissioned, it's in the hierarchical structure so entrenched in the organization that waste is not only accepted, but encouraged because it's never identified as such.

No matter what kind of a team you assemble, no matter what methodology you use, it won't work if it has to operate in the context of the pig. The constraint isn't the team executing the project at the ground-level, it's the 'supporting' structure that imposes arbitrary rules and processes that hamper software delivery, which ironically they're supposed to help with.

When projects do invariably fail, nobody will look at the pig because that would pose uncomfortable questions regarding status, relevance, and change. Being agile would mean to stare these questions in the face and make the necessary change, but Agile says otherwise. The latter affords you the chance to continue working mechanically under rules that are supposed to work, while you continue to struggle in an uphill battle against the immovable and uncompromising pig.

Somewhere along the way the proposal of using common sense in software projects (agile) got confused with a rigid, monolithic process (Agile). Unfortunately, agile and Agile are now synonymous and there aren't enough well-meaning coaches in the world that can fix that. You can't suggest being agile to someone without them rolling their eyes, but if you ask them to use common sense, it might move them.

So, let's stop using agile because it's now taken to mean Agile, and nobody wants Agile. It's about as attractive a term as Enron is in the energy industry, and nobody wants any part of it.

Call it what it is, call it honesty and common sense. All lower case.