I Don’t Think it’s Agile you Hate

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I have a lot of great memories of my grandmother. She was kind, extremely patient, and a wonderful role model. In addition to those more intangible qualities, she also baked a mean cookie. When I’d visit her, if I caught that heavenly scent as I approached the front door, I knew it was going to be a good day. She was like a Rembrandt with dough and frosting, but there was a recipe she made from time to time that included gumdrops. Not on top, mind you, but baked into the cookie itself. Some people must have liked these cookies, because she kept making them, but I found them just absolutely unpalatable.

Fast forward many (many) years to Adult Nate; software developer and Agile Coach/Trainer (and still avowed cookie lover). I meet a lot of people from many different backgrounds and with vast arrays of experiences. I talk to people who, like myself, are enthusiastic about how an Agile mindset can make work better for organizations and teams, and I talk to people who are less enthusiastic, or even skeptical, about how their groups could benefit. Rarely, however, I meet a true Agile hater; someone who has had an experience with Agile and come out the other end damaged and broken. While it’s fun to talk to people who share my enthusiasm for the Agile mindset, I would much rather talk to these Agile detractors and find out exactly what happened to leave such a lasting and negative taste in their mouth. My hope during these conversations is that I can gently convince them that while, yes, the experience they had was horrible, it shouldn’t have been that way.

Don’t Give up After One Nasty Cookie

If you’re someone reading this thinking, “YES! My team tried Agile and it was a disastrous experience!”, I hope you’ll give me a chance to explain why I feel you shouldn’t give up on it yet. Given that chance, I’d like to try to convince you that it’s not Agile that you hate, because I’m nearly certain it isn’t. It’s much more likely that you just happened to try a nasty, gumdrop laden set of Agile practices, and there are a lot more delicious options out there that you haven’t experienced yet.

Agile Methodologies are Like Recipes

As I teach clients, just as recipes are collections of ingredients with instructions on how to combine them, Agile methodologies are simply sets of Agile practices that compliment each other along with some guidance on how they fit together. There are an enormous number of practices in the Agile community, with more being documented all the time. As an Agile coach, the easiest thing I could do when working with a new client would simply be to tell them to implement a well-known Agile methodology like Scrum. The issue with that is that particular set of practices may not work well for their group, the work they do, or the organization they’re working in.

Compounding this issue of tool fit is that as the Agile mindset starts taking hold, many organizations decree that every group must use the same methodology. They soon discover, however, that a set of practices that is working well for one group may actually hinder work in others. The detrimental effect of forcing people solving different problems in different ways to share the same Agile tool will be quickly felt. Without understanding that Agile is a mindset and not the particular set of practices they’re using, people will naturally start associating the pain they’re feeling with this “Agile thing”, and automatically reject Agile practices categorically. We have to stop indiscriminately imposing solutions that work for one group on everyone else. Stop it!

Almost Nobody Hates Cookies

While nearly everyone has certain cookie recipes they just don’t like, there are very few people who simply can’t get behind them as a concept. The Agile mindset is the same way. Forget Scrum. Forget Kanban or XP. When we focus on the mindset, there is simply nothing there anyone working to bring a product to a customer should find distasteful.

It’s about:

  • delighting our customers by frequently providing them with high-quality, valuable product
  • saving cost by vetting assumptions early, limiting rework caused by teams working on the wrong thing for any length of time
  • reducing risk by approaching unknowns as small, bounded experiments, learning from them as quickly as possible, and applying what we learn immediately
  • disrupting our competitors by getting small but valuable innovations into our market first
  • increasing the productivity and engagement of our teams by reducing their frustration and stress levels (by doing the things listed above)
  • continually dialing up the impact of all the things on this list by frequently reflecting and fine-tuning how we work
  • doing all of this out in the open ensuring nobody is surprised when things don’t go as planned and allowing everyone to benefit from what others are learning

There is nothing in the Agile mindset that says you can’t plan, that you have to rigidly follow processes that don’t make sense or don’t work, that you don’t document, or that you just do whatever you feel like doing however you feel like doing it. If that was your experience with Agile, it just means you need to try a different recipe. Good Agile coaches won’t tell you there is one way to solve this problem; they’ll work with you to find practices that solve the real problems your teams face. They will help you learn to embrace the Agile mindset and focus on raising value, lowering risk and differentiating yourself from your competitors while you’re doing it.

Give Me a Chance to Prove it to you

If you’re not convinced, please reach out to me. I’d love to have a conversation with you. I want to hear what went wrong; what caused you pain. I would like a chance to help you figure out how to get back to those core concepts and how to get those good things listed above happening in your organization. Don’t give up on all cookies because of a few well-intentioned but tragically misplaced gumdrops.