Post-Agilism: Process Skepticism

I’m a fan of Agile practices, and I draw on values and ideas from Scrum and XP quite often. However, I have become a process skeptic. I’m tired of what a colleague complained to me about several years ago as: “Agile hype”. I’m tired of hearing “Agile this” and “Agile that”, especially when some of what is now branded as “Agile” was branded as “Total Quality Management”, or <insert buzzword phrase here> in the past. It seems that some are flogging the same old solutions, and merely tacking “Agile” onto them to help with marketing. It looks like Robert Martin was right when he predicted this would happen.

More and more I am meeting people who, like me, are quiet Agile skeptics. I’m not talking about people who have never been on Agile projects before that take shots from the outside. I’m talking about smart, capable, experienced Agilists. Some were early adopters who taught me Agile basics. While initially overcome with Agile as a concept, their experience has shown them that the “hype” doesn’t always work. Instead of slavishly sticking to Agile process doctrines, they use what works, in the context they are currently working with. Many cite the Agile Manifesto and values of XP as their guide for work that they do, but they find they don’t identify with the hype surrounding Agile methods.

That said, they don’t want to throw out the practices that work well for them. They aren’t interested in turning back the clock, or implementing heavyweight processes in reaction to the hype. While they like Agile practices, some early adopters I’ve talked to don’t really consider themselves “Agile” anymore. They sometimes muse aloud, wondering what the future might hold. “We’ve done that, enjoyed it, had challenges, learned from it, and now what’s next?” Maybe that’s the curse of the early adopter.

They may use XP practices, and wrap up their projects with Scrum as a project management tool, but they aren’t preachy about it. They just stick with what works. If an Agile practice isn’t working on a project, they aren’t afraid to throw it out and try something else. They are pragmatic. They are also zealous about satisfying and impressing the customer, not zealous about selling “Agile”. In fact, “Agile” zealotry deters them.

They also have stories of Agile failures, and usually can describe a watershed moment where they set aside their Agile process zeal, and just worked on whatever it took to get a project complete in order to have happy customers. To them, this is what agility is really about. Being “agile” in the dictionary sense, instead of being “Agile” in the marketing sense.

Personally, I like Agile methods, but I have also seen plenty of failures. I’ve witnessed that merely following a process, no matter how good it is, does not guarantee success. I’ve also learned that no matter what process you follow, if you don’t have skilled people on the team, you are going to find it hard to be successful. A friend of mine told a me about a former manager who was in a state of perpetual amazement. The manager felt that the process they had adopted was the key to their success, and enforced adherence to it. However, when anything went wrong (which happened frequently), he didn’t know what to do. Their project was in a constant state of disarray. I’ve seen this same behavior on Agile projects as well. (In fact, due to the blind religiosity of some Agile proponents, some Agile projects are more prone to this than we might realize.) Too many times we look for the process to somehow provide us the perfect answer instead of just using our heads and doing what needs to be done. “Oh great oracle, the white book! Please tell us what do do!” may be the reaction to uncertainty, instead of using the values and principles in that book as a general guideline to help solve problems and improve processes.

I have also seen people on Agile teams get marginalized because they aren’t Agile enough. While I appreciate keeping a process pure, (such as really doing XP rather than just calling whatever you are doing “Agile” because it’s cool right now), sometimes you have to break the rules and get a solution out the door. I have seen people be pushed out of projects because they “didn’t get Agile”. I have seen good solutions turned away because they weren’t in the white book (Extreme Programming Explained). I’ve also seen reckless, unthinking behavior justified because it was “Agile”. In one case, I saw a manager pull out the white book, and use a paragraph from it in an attempt to justify not fixing bugs. I was reminded of a religious nut pulling quotes out of context from a sacred book to justify some weird doctrine that was contrary to what the original author intended.

Here’s a spin on something I wrote earlier this spring:

In an industry that seems to look for silver-bullet solutions, it’s important for us to be skeptics. We should be skeptical of what we’re developing, but also of the methodologies, processes, and tools on which we rely. We should continuously strive for improvement.

I call this brand of process skepticism exhibited by experienced Agilists “Post-Agilism”. I admit that I have been an Agile process zealot in the past, and I don’t want to fall into that trap again. I’ve learned that skill and effective communication are much more powerful, so much so that they transcend methodologies. There are also pre-Agile ideas that are just fine to pick from. Why throw out something that works just because it isn’t part of the process that’s currently the most popular?

Test your process, and strive for improvement. Be skeptical, and don’t be afraid to follow good Post-Agilist thinking. Some good Post-Agilist thinkers are former process zealots who know and enjoy Agile development, but also don’t throw out anything that isn’t generally accepted by Agilists. Others are just plain pragmatic sorts who saw the Agile hype early on, and decided to do things on their terms. They took what they found effective from Agile methods, and didn’t worry about selling it to anyone.

Post-Agilist thinkers just don’t see today’s “Agile” as the final word on software development. They want to see the craft to move forward and generate new ideas. They feel that anything that stifles new ideas (whether “Agile-approved” or not) should be viewed with suspicion. They may benefit from tools provided by Agile methods, but are more careful now when it comes to evaluating the results of their process. In the past, many of us measured our degree of process adoption as success, sometimes forgetting to look to the product we were developing.

What does the post-Agile future hold? Will individuals adapt and change Agile method implementations as unique needs arise? Will “Agile” go too far and become a dirty word like Business Process Re-engineering? Or will it indeed be the way software is widely developed? Or will we see a future of people picking what process works for them, while constantly evaluating and improving upon it, without worrying about marketing a particular development methodology? I certainly hope it will be the latter. What do you think?

Edit: April 28, 2007. I’ve added a Post-Agilism Frequently Asked Questions post to help explain more. Also see Jason Gorman’s Post-Agilism – Beyond the Shock of the New.