This is the second blog post in my series on the current state of Agile. In the first post, I shared my view on the changing sentiment towards Agile and some of my own history and experience with it. I also identified four factors that, in my opinion, contribute to the current state. In this blog post, I explore the first of these four factors: Agile’s current popularity.
This is going to start out depressing. But I promise towards the end it will turn around!
Fighting the Enemy
My parents weren’t hippies. But I was raised in a very progressive environment with a clear ambition to change the status quo. We said no to nuclear power. We ate organic when that was barely a thing. And we were definitely feminists. At the same time, my parents were adapting to the fact that their generation hadn’t managed to overturn capitalism and eradicate social injustice. Love wasn’t all you needed. The system was stronger than expected.
I grew older. Most people do, I guess. One fateful day, my brother introduced me to Rage Against the Machine. Zac de la Rocha screaming “Waaaake up!” blasted out of the speakers and my eleven-year-old brain was changed forever. To me, Rage Against the Machine is the thread that weaves protest and counter-culture through the Nineties. Nowadays, ticket prices to their stadium shows are so high that the underprivileged people they have been fighting for can’t afford to see them live. They didn’t manage to change the system. The machine is still chugging along. It just incorporated their rebellion and managed to sell it for a profit.
When I started using Agile around 2010, the enemy we were fighting was Waterfall software development. To me, it seemed like Agile was the new right thing that was going to supersede the old wrong thing. We were going to transform the world of work forever!
That was what I believed until I had to work with actual project managers. The people I met were pragmatic and intelligent. And most of all, they made actual software appear despite all Agile claims to the contrary. They knew about the shortcomings of a plan-first approach, knew how to mitigate some of the issues they were seeing, and were generally very open to any new input. They were infuriatingly different from the enemy I had envisioned.
These people cared about results. And so they were curious to learn about Agile. They pointed out that few of the ideas being passed around in the Agile community were entirely new. They had seen new methods come and go. Agile was just one more thing. Interesting, and possibly useful, but not as groundbreaking as people made it out to be.
By this time I realized that “Agile will transform the world of work forever!” wasn’t quite as simple as I had once believed. There had been other approaches before Agile that were supposed to change everything. They didn’t. There was Total Quality Management. There was Business Process Reengineering. There was Lean. Now there’s Agile.
It feels incredibly ironic that Agile, for a lot of people, is now becoming the enemy. We were the underdogs. We were going to fight the oppression, just like my parents and Rage Against the Machine.
Now we have become the new norm, the old wrong thing that will be superseded by the new right thing. People are rebelling against us just like we were rebelling against the enemy of Waterfall development.
What can explain how we went from being the underdogs to being the establishment within a decade?
The Hype Cycle
In 2017 I went to the Certified LeSS Practitioner training with Craig Larman, who has been in the game a lot longer than me. One of the things he talked about was how Agile is currently going through the The Gartner Hype Cycle, which is often used to “represent the maturity, adoption, and social application of specific technologies”. It seems to apply well to Agile.
Additionally, as many people have pointed out, Agile has already been added to the extensive lists of approaches that are considered management fads. Sadly, Agile ticks most of the boxes and I can’t help but feel a sinking feeling in my gut when I read about it.
Now we are left with the deeper question of why organizations are drawn to these fads. They seem trapped in a cycle of clinging to ideas, not seeing the expected benefits, and then moving on to the next thing. As a consultant I get to see many different organizations from the inside. There are things few people talk about openly. These include:
- Most organizations are significantly less professional than the image they project towards the outside will have you believe. The employees believe that other organizations have found the answers while their own struggles. They are constantly looking for something that will finally give them orientation and guidance so they can catch up.
- An organization will never be “done”. There will always be more problems. Organizations will never reach the point when everything has been figured out and simply locks into place. Management implicitly assume that a change initiative will finally provide the solution and put a definitive end to at least one specific problem, if not to all. As this doesn’t happen there is always a need for new approaches that will finally usher in the elusive era of done-ness.
- In most organizations, it’s dangerous to admit that there are things you don’t know and you don’t have control over. It’s your job to be in control and have a plan. As a result, people look for something that has already proven itself and seemingly works well elsewhere. But since they’re acting under pressure, they do not take the time to study the approach in enough detail. The implementation fails. People blame the method. They look for something new.
For now, let’s assume these three things are true. To me, this explains pretty well why certain approaches suddenly become popular, fall out of favor, and get replaced by something new.
With its rise in popularity, Agile could never deliver on all the things people expect of it. Nothing that is caught in that hype cycle can ever fulfill all hopes. In a way, it simply has to fail because the expectations projected onto it are so high and become more absurd as popularity increases.
It’s Not Just Agile
If Agile itself was the problem and simply didn’t work, this dynamic would be specific to Agile. It’s not. We have some recent examples of the same thing happening to other approaches as soon as they become popular.
I started trying out Objectives and Key Results about five years ago. Not many people had heard of them, so I wasn’t surprised to see that using them effectively was difficult for my clients. But then two years ago everyone started asking about OKRs. All implementations I’ve seen so far had nothing to do with even the most basic ideas behind OKRs. Just like Agile.
OKRs have become popular and the same thing that is happening to Agile is happening to OKRs. Christina Wodtke is one of the most influential people when it comes to OKRs. Read her post on the topic in which she outlines the exact same thing.
Remember that my impetus for writing this series of blog posts was the increasing number of people doubting whether Agile has ever been fully used anywhere. I’m fairly certain this, again, is something that happens to any approach that reaches a certain threshold of popularity. Let me give you another recent example.
Teresa Torres publishes some great work on the topic of Product Discovery. Here’s a quote from one of her recent posts:
“Product thought leaders talk about an ideal way of working. Nobody actually works that way.”
I can’t tell you how many times I hear this sentiment on Twitter and LinkedIn. And I hate it.
I realize that many product people have never worked in a product trio, don’t have access to customers, aren’t given time to test their ideas, and are working in what Marty Cagan calls “features teams” or “delivery teams”.
Both are true. The reason why it’s so hard for the first group to believe that the second group exists is because they’ve never seen it.
But just because you’ve never seen it or experienced it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Especially when your experience only spans a half a dozen or so different workplaces.
The Good News
Realizing that Agile is not the “one true way” and will not transform the world of work forever might be disheartening at first. But remember, I promised to turn this blog post around towards the end.
My parents’ generation didn’t change the world, eradicate social injustice, or put an end to war. Neither did Rage Against The Machine. But so many of the topics I was exposed to in my youth are part of public discourse now. It took longer than expected and didn’t exactly go as planned. But there has been progress.
Agile might come and go. But if we widen our view, we can see that it is part of a larger dynamic. Doing so helps us stay open to new ideas, new developments. Agile might morph into something that’s possibly even better. The next step on the ladder. This is something we may miss if we believe Agile is the only thing that really works.
And we shouldn’t discount the change we have already affected. More people are working in cross-functional teams. Deployment times have gone down considerably. The number of releases a year has gone up. New organizational structures are openly discussed and tried out. There is increased talk about psychological safety and values.
Sure, we didn’t break the entire system. But we put a noticeable dent in it. Let’s stay open to what’s possible. Let’s make more dents!