Is Agile Really Dead?

 “Agile is dead… but that doesn’t mean we have to stop doing it”

– Dave Thomas (GOTO 2015)

This is the time of year when I look behind and ahead. A time to appreciate all that I’ve experienced and learned. And a time to welcome a new set of adventures and lessons.

What I’ve Heard

As I reflect upon the past year, I’ve heard a recurring chant. “Agile is Dead”.

It sounds like a tabloid headline.

It’s a chant that started as early as 2014 with Dave Thomas in a blog post he wrote. Since then it has sparked much conversation and debate. Most likely, by design, as it threatens the belief and livelihood of Agile practitioners.

For me, two initial questions come to mind.

  1. What is meant by “Agile”?
    • The Agile Manifesto?
    • The mindset?
    • The practices?
    • The stakeholders?
  2. What is meant by “Dead”?
    • Dead. Period, full stop. Stone-cold?
    • Dead… dot, dot, dot. Hasta la vista?
    • Dead, almost. Walking dead zombies?

As I look ahead at the beginning of a new decade, I’m hearing another recurring chant starting. “What’s the future of Agile?”. Along with all sorts of prognosticators offering their opinions.

So, if Agile has a future, are the rumours of Agile’s death greatly exaggerated? Akin to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”, has Agile simply evolved, adapted and morphed true to its namesake?

  • From the altruism of The Manifesto for Agile Software Development to the monetization of the Agile Industrial Complex?
  • From behaviours that are deliberate to those that are intuitive?
  • From explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge?
  • From special purpose to general purpose?
  • From oddity to commodity?

What I Know

My wife loves music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. I love classical music. I haven’t always loved classical music. It’s taken time to grow on me. It‘s been around for hundreds of years. Many have enjoyed it before I uncovered its beauty for myself. I’m glad it didn’t die when newer music genres appeared.

My daughter, Lindsey gave me a smart speaker for Christmas. An Amazon Echo Dot. I didn’t realize the utility of smart speakers before that. Now it’s become an indispensable part of my day. I even bought one for my wife. She’s been asking Alexa to play ABBA’s Mamma Mia multiple times a day (sigh!). There may be far more advanced smart speakers than the Amazon Echo Dot and we may be late to the smart speaker party, but we’re glad they stuck around long enough for us to discover them for ourselves.

What are my lessons from these two examples?

  • Old and new can co-exist. When the latest and greatest appear, it doesn’t mean the death of all that came before.
  • Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. There may still be many who will appreciate, and experience tried, true and old legacy ideas as if they were new innovations. For them, they are.

Underlying Theories

Two theories come to mind that may add more colour or grist to what I’ve heard and what I know.

The first is Everett Rogers’ model for the diffusion of innovations. There’s an Alistair Cockburn blog post where he illustrates with the model, an interesting and controversial take on the future opportunity size of Agile adoption.

Everett Rogers was a communication theorist and sociologist from Iowa. Based on his own research and patterns observed in agriculture, education and medicine, he formulated in 1962, a general model of how innovations are communicated over time among the members of a social system.

Diffusion of Innovations
Adapted from Diffusion of Innovations (Everett Rogers)

His model categorizes people into different groups depending on how fast they adopt new ideas and innovations. The model also quantifies the relative size of each group into a Gaussian distribution or bell-curve.

So based on the model, if my daughter was an Early Adopter in the smart speaker space, I was at best, part of the Late Majority if not Laggards.

The model was popularized through his book, Diffusion of Innovations. His research was preceded and inspired by a 1943 hybrid seed corn study of Iowa farmers’ rates of adopting innovations in seeds to increase corn yields.

A couple of relevant data points from that study:

  1. It took 13 years to reach 100% adoption, despite a 20% yield increase
  2. The average farmer took 7 years to adopt the hybrid seeds completely

A 20% improvement was not enough to convince most farmers to abandon outright the old seeds for the new seeds.

Another takeaway for me was Rogers’ definition for “Innovation”. He defined it as “…an idea, practice or object that is PERCEIVED as new by an individual, organization or other unit of adoption

So, innovation is a “perception”. Wow!

Could that mean what’s perceived as passé by many may still hold the promise of innovation for some?

The second relevant theory is based on a combination of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory and Frédéric Laloux’s Organizational Consciousness levels. Caroline Sauve introduced this as “Integral Altitudes” at a recent Agile Coach Retreat I attended in Toronto. She shared a highly entertaining and insightful talk on using Integral Altitudes as a tool for coaching organizations. It was just the tip of the iceberg for a very deep and interesting topic.

Coaching w Integral Altitudes
From “A Coach’s Guide to Emotional Culture” (Caroline Sauve)

The most memorable and relevant takeaways for me were “Coach healthy emotional culture within the altitude” and “Don’t force or skip altitudes”. For me, it felt like a variation of coaching people “where they are”.

So, if an organization is not ready for a change or a jump in altitude (e.g. From Amber to Orange) no matter how much benefit it may have for them, let’s accept, honour and welcome their decision. Let’s help them be the best they can be where they are?

What I’ve Noticed

One’s view of the future depends on where one is in the present. For many, Agile continues to hold promise. New discoveries await them. For them, Agile is not dead. For them, they’re discovering the light anew. Here are a couple of examples I’ve observed and noticed recently.

During a technology leadership meeting, the Scrum Masters in the organization were describing how they were gauging their teams’ impact on the business. When all of a sudden there was a flurry of excited and incredulous questions from a few of the leaders. As if a switch were turned on.

QA is part of the Scrum teams?!

“What’s an example of a user story?

Teams complete a user story within a single 2-week sprint?!

Is the new product owner decision-making speed gated by learning ramp-up or lack of authority?

How do we reconcile the cost of more frequent production deployments?

How small is ‘small’ when it comes to work items?

The wonder and realization in their faces was palpable. The questions and insights may be old news for practitioners. But, not for them. I simply enjoyed the moment with them.

During a check-in with Scrum Masters, one of the more experienced Scrum Masters lamented,

Is this it?!

Have we reached the peak of what Agile can be in this organization?

What else is there for us?

We chatted and explored opportunities for Scrum Masters to extend their service beyond their team to the organization. Opportunities to nudge the Agile envelope by making visible its impediments at an organizational level. We all relished the potential.

So, while #YourAgile has died and you’re mourning for #TheGoodOldDays or searching for #TheNextBigThing, #MyAgile is alive and ready while I help uncover #TheirAgile.


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