Defining Agile: A Musing

Defining Agile

Sooooo, I saw a couple folks arguing earlier about what is or isn’t Agile.

That’s okay. People do that. Analytical people thrive on doing that. Anyone who’s gotten to the level of journeyfolk in any arena will seek to define that arena. All very healthy stuff.

Nowadays I tend to avoid these arguments. I have my reasons.

First, there is no definition anywhere on earth of anything that can’t be abused or misused willfully or not. There is no compelling conceptual locus that can be framed in mere words such that we can use those words to decide what’s inside the area and what’s outside of it.[1]

Second, I get bored easily. Remember, these wrangles are nearly 20 years old now. Spend some time at Ward’s Wiki. We discussed extreme everything. Extreme banking, extreme housebuilding, extreme everything.

Third, I don’t myself use "Agile", except in uncomfortable situations.

Two Poles and a Broad Spectrum

There are two poles in most such discussions, with a spectrum between them.

One pole says "agile" means subscribing to the spirit and the letter of the document known as the Agile Manifesto.

One pole says "agile" means whatever the speaker thinks is best.

That second pole includes many folks who believe they have a grip on the spirit but aren’t necessarily even interested in the letter. It has many other folks — I’d say many more — who have solid connections to neither the spirit nor the letter.

Some Actual Cases, Bizarre to Me

There are folks who think there’s an agile way to hire lots of crummy geeks, pay them shit, and use control technique to make it work. They want to call this agile.

There are folks who think agile doesn’t require working software frequently released, or testing, or any given one or several of the original pillars.

Yesterday I heard of a team that does agile planning much more quickly by cutting out all the discussion.

There are many people who think agile means hour-long standups and month-long iterations.

I know folks who believe scrummastering is just another word for coaching, and others who think coaching means spreadsheet maintenance for management. Chat about it on twitter for a bit, and you’ll see tweets from people who sell "agile" tracking systems that count hours for management.

Companies like Microsoft claim agile. HP, saints preserve us. and many other hulking command and control giants. Hard for me to take.

Not so long ago I spent 5 months obtaining a thirteenth computer for a 12-person team that is the only team in their department that’s shipping successfully, at a Fortune 500 company with a whole agile software delivery department.[2]

I am not imagining this. Unlike a lot of folks, I work with these people for a living. Not just one company or team, but many. This list isn’t based in my reading, but in things I’ve observed directly or from one step away. It’s the vantage of being a well-known external coach.

Me and Agility

What I call agility is a mental stance, a kind of philosophy of geekery.

And tho I bitch at the Agile Manifesto a lot, it does in fact do a reasonable job of describing that philosophy.

There are a couple of things to remember about "agile" as a term. It emerged at a time when the folks using it were noting and seeking a unity between some disparate methods. They were also seeking mindshare. In those days we were all hungry for mindshare, because mindshare meant sales and sales meant we could keep doing this cool thing we were doing.

We wanted mindshare. We got it. To get it, we softened our case. We made hard things seem easy. we spread the word. Along the way we muddied things by changing — rightly — our behavior and our prescriptions and proscriptions.

And yes, we invited in and even encouraged hucksters and lightweights.

We marketed.

And if we — I — now regret that, well, hell, I’m reasonably confident it won’t be the last thing i do that I regret.

[…] so that they know just exactly how a thing of beauty is a joy forever and forever and how it never never can quite fade into money-losing nothingness.

That’s Ferlinghetti, speaking of art directors and their relationship to art. (Read the whole poem, as it’s my favorite by him and one of my top half-dozen or so all-time poems. It’s meant to be declaimed, so declaim it.)

What I Do

I help teams find paths to becoming more like the people they wish they were. I call that "coaching".

I don’t attend much to best. Instead I spend my time focusing on next.

I live with teams, learning what they do and how they do it. And I open them up to possible changes, in technique, in organization, in social behavior, in goals, in ways to think about problems.

I don’t — can’t — make anyone change. I never give orders. I only propose, describe, demonstrate ideas. Over time, teams ask me for ideas, cuz the ones I’ve offered that have been tried have helped.

And I wanna stress, they’ve helped in practice. That is, real problems the team experiences have been mitigated. Problems don’t happen to teams in theory, they happen to them in practice. That means the solutions have to, too.

This is what I know: I know that if you show me a hurting software development team, I can often, by no means always, help them not hurt.

I also know I do that by things that go largely unmentioned in any manifesto, agile or otherwise. I act-then-listen. I experiment. I attend. I am kind and, roughly speaking, cheerful. I got mad geek chops. I am fundamentally a silly person full of odd habits and odder passions.

Am I An Agile Coach?

Is that agility? Am I an agile coach? Are all the changes I propose "agile"?

I don’t care if that’s agility.

I don’t call myself an agile coach if I can avoid it.

The ideas I propose are based on my experience and my philosophy. Both have been influenced by the agile movement. But they’re not mostly "agile", they’re just good local stepwise answers to bad local stepwise problems.

What does "agile" mean to me? It means "a set of insights that gradually morphed into a nearly empty abstraction".

Not Hating the Arguers

I get it. I get it why it makes people angry to have the word mean just any damned thing at all.

I get it why some folks want to extend the notion of agility to cover agile-spirited ideas.

I get it why one would argue when I hear some would-be agilist advocating behaviors that don’t seem even conceivably to match the spirit.

I get it even more more more when I see that feeling coming from a manifesto author. Yes, it was a marketing and business decision, but it was also a heartfelt effort to collaborate in sketching a way forward in a very broken world.

Arguing About Agility Doesn’t Help Much

I Focus On Helping Much

[1] That’s not just an intellectual stance for me, but a daily one: I really don’t have the experience that truth fits in language, so I don’t spend a lot of time trying to make it do so.

[2] I’m not talking about a super-computer here. I’m talking about a computer that would have cost less than one day of my billing to get. And yes, Virginia, I did offer to take the day off and show up the next day with a new box. I always do. They always decline.

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