Agile development under fire

Recently my colleague Nuno shared a talk by Dave Thomas with the tantalizing title “Agile is dead”. My initial response was one of slight annoyance being trolled with another agile bashing click bait video. I watched it all the way through with a sense of deja-vu, then it hit me. I had seen it before!

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It happened a year ago, when I told an IT-savvy friend about my new job as a scrum master at Worth Internet Systems. My initial “yay, I’m so happy with my awesome, sweet, supercool job” was answered by his teasing remark: “hey, look at this video, it says agile is dead.”

“Gosh thanks”, I thought and ignored it completely.

Nuno was challenging me for a response on this video though, so I could no longer keep my head in the sand. He said: “I would actually like to hear more from the scrum masters about this sort of points being raised.” And I knew he was right. A serious response is in order.

The first thing I have to say is this: Do not panic!

Now let’s pick this thing apart and see what is going on, what it means to us and what we should do about it.

Why are people negative about agile development?

According to Dave Thomas “Agile” has become a brand and training and certification an industry. And he is absolutely right about that. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with the methodology of course. It just means that there are people making a lot of money. Including Mr. Thomas himself as he so valiantly admits during the talk.

There are some known flaws to agile development though, in particular to the scrum framework. In short they are:

  • Scaling agile development is hard. As explained by Jeff Gothelf.
  • Agile development allows for speed, but speed can lead to low quality. As explained by Tim Ottinger
  • It doesn’t fit everywhere. Not every organization has projects with a flexible scope, the right people to create self steering teams and the need for flexibility during development.
  • It can be difficult to sell agile development to customers, because they usually want to know exactly what they’re getting for their money and preferably also when. All these issues have been solved countless times. So not everyone might agree that there are any limitations to the application of agile development. But the mere fact that there’s something to be solved proves that agile development and scrum have some weaknesses, otherwise there would be no solving needed.

Still I would like to re-invoke my first response: Do not panic! Because we don’t know yet what it all means.

What does it all mean?

First of all: it does not mean that agile development is indeed without life, as the phrase “agile is dead” might be suggesting. Dave Thomas ends his talk with the words that we still need agility to create things. He still sees merit in the agile approach to software development. So let’s not start the autopsy just yet!

But I already explained that what’s happening is not just one man explaining how Agile™ is a bad thing and then saying there’s still virtue in being agile. There’s more going on. People are talking about the flaws on one side (dark agile manifesto) and defending the virtues on the other (Jeff Sutherland ).

But what does that mean…?


What we are witnessing is in fact a hype going through the “trough of disillusionment” as Gartner calls it. The visibility of agile development can be described as a steep rise at first. People were triggered by the innovative new approach. Then it reached a point of saturation, called “peak of inflated expectations”, after which it started to decrease slowly, into the aforementioned trough.

The smell of new is gone, as Andy Budd explains: “Today many Agile projects feel as formal and conservative as the approaches they overthrew.”

On a worldwide scale the progression up the “slope of enlightenment” onto the “plateau of productivity” is happening. More and more companies understand when and how to use agile development and are happily doing so. I believe Spotify to be one of those, judging by this video. They have embraced the power of self steering teams to solve the scaling issue. Supercool and inspiring! But of course not universally applicable.

What will be the next big thing?

Of course the realisation that agile development is just one methodology among others is a healthy one. We know waterfall came before and is still used with some success. So agile development will remain probably stick around as well. What we don’t know, is what will come after. I am willing to make a prediction about what will most likely be the strengths of the next methodology though.

  • Strategic planning This is difficult in agile development and scrum. Customers always ask me to create some kind of roadmap. They need to know what will happen in 2 months, or in 5 months, not just within the next sprint. We always have to figure out a way to show something tangible without committing to promises we know we can’t keep.
  • Quality and delivery balanced The agile manifesto calls out for “working software over comprehensive documentation”. And using planning poker and scrum there’s the habit of keeping track of something called velocity (the amount of story points delivered per sprint by a scrum team). When speed is encouraged and working software is more important than comprehensive documentation, one can understand that quality is something that can easily be forgotten. It requires discipline and rigor to manage technical debt and keep delivering high quality products.
  • Scaling and alignment Does scrum scale? I am not sure. Some people say it does, others say it doesn’t. There’s a lot of things we all know scrum and agile development to be good at, scaling and alignment in large complex organisational structures are simply not among of those.
  • Less silly terminology Why do we call meetings ‘ceremonies’? Why am I a ‘scrum master’? I understand that using new names will help people re-imagine the function of a meeting or their role in a team. There are downsides though, among which I count the giggles and rolling of eyes when I tell non-IT people about my job.
  • Expensive books, courses and certificates…. However much anyone might dislike the way agile development became Agile™, the branding and the industry will always be there. People will try to monetize their theories and insights and other will want to buy the books and get the certificates. There’s a niche and it will be filled

So now what?

What we can do is keep evaluating our work and our processes and improve them where possible. Evaluate and improve, that sounds very agile, doesn’t it?

Another thing we can do is to study alternative approaches and share knowledge and experiences with peers. Let’s not limit ourselves to what we are already familiar with or even to what we were taught.

Last but not least we should always apply the most powerful tool we have: our mind. It will help us see where things go wrong before they do, it will help us solve problems and it will help us to stay calm. Use common sense and if needed come up with something new. Do not exclude inventing new stuff.

“But everything has been done before...” So what. Do it anyway.

For me and my colleagues at Worth this means that we can pretty much go on as we do already. “Explore more” is not just a slogan, it is a mindset.

What do I like about the way we work?

Regardless of what anyone else says... Call it agile development, call it scrum, call it anything you like. As Shakespeare so wisely said: “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Names do not change the nature of the matter at hand. The way we work is awesome in so many ways, I will name a few of my favorites.

First and foremost there’s the rhythm of sprints. The cadence, the predictability, the promise of a blank canvas every few weeks. They are like nuggets or building stones adding up to something great. Ending a sprint gives closure, starting a sprint brings new energy. Rinse and repeat!

We try, evaluate and adapt. The result of this is that if we fail, we fail fast and with minimal risk. We become better all the time. It also makes sure that we never get bogged down by our own standards and processes.

I love love love retrospectives. Talk about how things are going is something we do every day, but retrospectives are more. They offer a place and time for deeper thought and discussion about the way we do things. It gives the team a chance to share feedback and take control of the way they cooperate.

One benefit of following a framework like scrum is the clarity of roles and responsibilities. New employees, freelancers and customers either know the drill or are quickly up to speed because of the ample amount of tutorials, blogs, video’s and books explaining the way we work.

I mentioned it before as a strength of agile development and scrum: the empowered developer. Our team members are not subjected to a world set in stone when starting a project. Instead they have a lot of freedom to create the project in such a way that it makes them proud. Of course limitations occur, especially when the customer demanded the use of a certain technology… But in general the “how” is definitely owned by the team.

The “what” of course is owned by our customers! They are the ones that know best what the users need. Our approach to customer contact is all about being honest and communicative. The way we help them fulfill the role of product owner is one of cooperation and inclusion.

And finally… What really makes me happy is a nice, well organized whiteboard. By putting our work on the wall we know where we are and how we are doing. Whiteboards help us to have meaningful standups. They are an excellent way to show the buzz of creation to visiting customers and to keep track of our progress. I love them, they are great.

So there it is...

There’s a shift in the world, but that really shouldn’t bother us too much. All we have to do is keep an open mind about the way we work. Easy peasy, right?!

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