Monday, 23 August 2010

Agile is Different

Dear Junior

From time to time I hear, see, or read how Agile is explained as "it is no news" or "it is the same old good project management, with some twists". My impression is that this is done as an attempt to make Agile less scary to make it easier to "sell" to management. I think this is a serious mistake. I think that in subtle but fundamental and important ways - at its heart and roots - Agile is different.

The difference is subtle because you cannot observe it directly. Any and all of the things you can see in an Agile-honouring organisation can easily be copied. There are software delivered in short and regular intervals, there are team retrospectives, and daily team-meeting. And all of these practises can be used in a traditionally managed organisation as well, but it does not make that organisation Agile.

To me the fundamental difference is in how you look at humans.

Traditional management use humans as building parts to build a software-producing machine, or a factory. In this machine people are the moving parts and they are strung together by a processes that dictated their interactions. At the end of the process, software emerges. It is very mechanical. For example, in this world it would be very strange if people would arbitrarily start changing the process - then the designed process might just break and who knows what would happen. So that cannot be allowed.

I might be guilty of over-exaggerating, but the practice of constantly referring to people as "resources" to me unveils an outlook on people that I find scary.

The view of humans in Agile is different. In Agile we acknowledge that it is the engagement and skills of people that make things happen. We make it a first-order concern that people should feel motivated and proud. And instead of a mechanical world view, we rely on a more organic view of organisations. If people want to change the process they are not only allowed, they are encouraged to do that — even if we do not know the precise effect it will have on the overall system.

To explain this, I think it is easiest to look at the Agile Manifesto. The first of its values is:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
This is not a small thing. Here lays a fundamental difference in how we look at people and organisations. A traditional process is defined by a single person at a single point of time. However, the wisdom and insight of that person at that time is nothing - absolutely nothing - compared to what can be achieved by having each involved person thinking and discussing with their peers - and doing so continuously. And if given the choice between an ever-so-well defined process on one side and trusting the wisdom of the crowd on the other hand, we chose the crowd any day of the week.

It is a little bit like democracy. We could trust a wise and benign emperor. However, we think we get a better result if all citizens engage in an open discussion. We create and change our laws according to that discussion - even if we do not know the result in advance.

In this perspective Agile is a celebration of the wonderful and mysterious system that emerge from initiatives that rise out of interaction between people that care.

This is also what can be seen in the fifth principle of the Agile Manifesto:
Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.
We actually trust that people want to work. We acknowledge that we need to give them the proper environment and tools, but that will be enough. There is no need to command and control. Things will just happen. It is a leap-of-faith to let control go. Organisations with traditional management dare not take that leap. Agile does.

So, when looking at a traditional organisation or project and comparing that one with one honouring Agile, you might not see much of a difference. But if you are inside of it, you feel the difference. It is there - at the heart. You feel trusted and empowered. And if you look closely you might see it as well - the small smile on peoples faces.

The difference is subtle. But it is fundamental. And it is important.

I am convinced that at its roots and heart - Agile is different.




  1. Dear Manuel

    Certainly. I think the work of Daniel Pink is of fundamental importance. The fact that workers _can have_ an "inner drive" gives a completely different fundament for your organisation than traditional management provides.

    Yours /Dan

  2. You're right in some respects, off in others. The only time you ever see a truly agile organisation is when it is run, owned and operated by agilists. Otherwise, what you get is semi-agile, a cruel bastardisation of agile and traditional processes that is actually worse than traditional management, in the sense that it promises so much but delivers so little. This sort of situation is why agile has fallen out of favour in place of kan ban.

    I believe in agile, but you really do have to have complete agreement at all levels, and it's hard if not impossible to get some management types to give up even an ounce of their power.

  3. Great post. On principal, I couldn't agree more. I do, however, share some of Orry's thoughts regarding how "you really do have to have complete agreement at all levels". Our company recently went through a couple of days of Scrum training, which was very good, but also highlighted some of the organizational dysfunctions - lack of buy-in and lack of trust among them. More recently, I've had conversations (to put it politely) about management's desire to measure/compare/standardize the work of Agile teams - to impose a "how" on the teams, which in my view gets away from the whole notion of self-organization.

    I find myself thinking...if an organization, particularly at senior levels of leadership, is unwilling to let go of some of these traditional notions of management/leadership - is any attempt to transition to agile pre-destined to achieve only limited success (if not delayed outright failure)?

  4. Dear Orry

    It is true that you seldom see deeply agile organisations. Sadly most managers adhere to the school of management rooted in Principles of Scientific Management. They do so either by having read literature based on that book or by having learned their ways from predecessors. And sadly, the Principles of Scientific Management is depressing reading for any liberal humanitarian.

    There are also good examples, the most notable being W. L. Gore & Associates - I really recommend the Wikipedia article on that one. They have been in business since 1958 and are still operating under a totally different paradigm than most companies - and are doing pretty well. But, as you point out, it is run, owned and operated by "agilists" (as we call them nowadays).

    I think agile might have success even within an organisation with non-agile management, I have seen and experienced it several times.

    But, the success is definitely limited by how much "organisational headroom" the agile team has before encountering strong command-and-control management - the kind you characterize by refusing giving up "even an ounce of their power".

    The sad part I think is that those managers live in a dream. They think they get in control by a tight grip - but what in reality happens is that important decisions are done elsewhere; the programmer under high pressure might just decide "as I must finished this before lunch, I will just skip _that_ part, hope nobody notice".

    These managers seem fail to see that a large part of agile is about giving them proper information to enable them to do their job better.

    Yours /Dan

  5. Dear cargocultism

    I share your concerns. And unfortunately I think you are right: the success of agile work-habits is limited by the "organisational headroom". If that headroom is "up to senior management", then there are pretty much you can do - but the leverage of agile is still limited.

    If you talk about "transition to agile", then I interpret that as actually turning the organisation into a deeply agile organisation - making the agile values the central paradigm of how the company work. If that is the ambition, I would say the initiative is pre-destined to fail without senior management support.

    However, I want to point out that you can get a long way in agile direction within your sub-org "under the radar" of pro-control-leaders. And the success at that level might be the success-stories you need for convincing the senior managers.

    Bizarrely I have found that senior management is often more open to agile ideas. The resistance is often toughest at mid-level management which seems to think they need control.

    A limiting factor is also how severe dysfunctional the rest of the organisation is. Sadly, in a dysfunctional organisation and with little headroom an agile team easily falls pray for organisational manipulations from someone with an agenda of their own. So, in that context I would not have much hope even for the "under the radar" approach.

    But in most organisations, there is hope.

    Yours /Dan

  6. "Bizarrely I have found that senior management is often more open to agile ideas"

    It's because it doesn't concern them directly. That is to say, it doesn't threat their lives in the clouds directly. They have slaves controlling the dirty details of things. These slaves need to motivate their existence therefore being an obstacle for anything close to autonomy or self-organization.

  7. Dear Manuel

    I think that observation is correct. As agile-type network-structures arise within an organisation, the importance of traditional management hierarchy dwindles, especially at middle-management level. And any such shift will be a source of conflicts - there are people for which the stakes are high.

    Yours /Dan

  8. Folks in the Agile / Lean community need to be careful of thinking Kanban will be any more effective than Agile. Having been in the industry for 25+ years I've seen when something is losing it shininess and marketers become ready for something new to sell (Agile -->Kanban)

    Kanban requires even more trust and team / individual empowerment than an Agile approach say like Scrum.

    (See my post on Chambering The Next Silver Bullet:

    Like waterfall, Kanban is very capable of letting all the dysfunction within organizations and between people that makes agile so difficult to do well to be swept under the carpet and hidden until it blows up like a nuke. For instance removing all the ceremony that folks may not like also removes what instills the discipline that can make agile work.

    For instance, if you still have a dysfunctional command and control, lack of trust environment, a pull based team will hardly ever be allowed to reach their optimum throughput / cycle time and stay there.

    This is because in such a dysfunctional environment there usually is an inabilty to protect the pull-based signaling as there is frequently some moron trying to get more out of the team by pushing and rewarding for utilization metrics while watching value and quality delivered fall, all because they are still rewarded for the wrong things.

    Agile and Kanban (I see Kanban as just one more tool to add to the utility belt) both require a type of culture that empowers human beings to think, use their intuition, make decision and make mistakes.

    Having been working with organizations to change to this type of culture and utilizing iterative and incremental development approaches for the last 15 years, I can tell you it is an elusive commodity in companies... but that's the challenge that makes it so iteresting. ;-)

  9. Dear Mike

    To me Agile and Lean stand on the same foundation: we rather trust people to have good ideas over time than we trust an indigenously devised process. Without that basic trust in humans, no agile-alike or lean-alike ceremony can succeed.

    I totally agree in you analysis of how dysfunctional organisations will utterly fail if trying to use the ceremony and hoping for improvement.

    My prime example of this is "lean healthcare" where doctors and nurses have helped to find better procedures - and being thanked by having resources cut down or pressure risen. What happens next time someone ask the nurses to help finding improvements? The organisation has basically misused the trust of the employees and undermined the very foundation for the lean initiative.

    Thanks for your insights, and I thoroughly enjoyed the "chambering the next silver bullet" post of yours.

    Yours /Dan

  10. Dear Dan,

    It's beyond me that some companies persist in trying to build a development process based on viewing humans as "resources". In their delusional world management think they can replace a resource with an equal one in a matter of hours/days. Teams are build in a couple of days, on the fly. You just put together some resources, hand down a couple of SADs, add some ceremony (stand-ups every morning, scrum board with some fantasy on it, etc) and you're done. Wonderful isn't it? Of course the result is a complete disaster. I've seen a dysfunctional IT department completely destroy itself because of this. Viva Taylor!