agile isn't perfect

Agile Isn’t Perfect

No one’s perfect, especially me. Or you. Agile isn’t perfect either. Everything and everyone has their shortcomings, and I believe it’s important to acknowledge them.

To be clear, I’m not talking about where a traditional approach is more suited than an agile one. No. Instead, I intend to talk about situations where an agile approach is appropriate and then discuss the shortcomings in those situations. Why? As experts, we must recognize common obstacles and sources of friction. If we can’t name them or don’t think they exist, then we’re not experts. We’re zealots, and I don’t look fondly on those who treat agile as scripture. So let’s get started.

Agile is the long play.

It’s not a rebranding; we don’t simply rename our meetings and claim success. It’s a cultural shift, and that takes time. Years even, and in a world where quarterly earnings are king, that can be a problem. Take Silicon Valley. According to data from 2017, tech companies had some of the highest employee turn over compared to other industries. Many employees were–and likely still are–staying less than 2.5 years at any company. So if both the company and its people are heavily focused on the near term, why would they care about the long play? Maybe Tim has the right approach.

Agility should never be imposed. But it often is.

Agility is about putting people first. It’s about inviting others to solve problems important to them in an effort to improve our surroundings and serve our customers. Then why do so many of us work in organizations where Scrum was imposed or an agile adoption was mandated? But is that really such a problem? Every organization has expectations of its people. Why can’t this be one? Would an organization naturally gravitate to agility, if left to its own devices? I don’t know. Maybe something broader can be imposed and the details be left to the people. Maybe something like this.

Anyone can claim to be an agile coach.

And I’ve run into my fair share that should reconsider their career choice. This isn’t a hit on novices. I was once one myself. I think Stephen Hawking sums it up well:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

This is about those that suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Put simply, it says that those who know the least believe they know the most. Are you a pilot? Show me. Land a plane. Are you an agile coach? Well, that’s more difficult to validate, and it’s often easy to fool a layman. Just like agile isn’t perfect, we should never expect perfect coaches. Nonetheless, I think it’s important we help one another grow and, where necessary, unmask the imposters.

We humans focus on what we see.

And that can be a problem. When we think of the electric car, Elon Musk probably comes to mind. The iPhone? Steve Jobs. Heroes are easy to understand. I’m sure we realize that teams of people brought each about. Still, we humans don’t often attribute success to teams of people, and we especially don’t attribute failures to crappy systems as often as we should. Finally since this post was inspired by a few passages from Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, I’ll let Pfeffer and Sutton explain the rest:

There are two theories. One says ‘there is a problem, let’s fix it.’ The other says ‘we’ve got a problem, someone is screwing up, let’s go beat them up.’ This occurs partly because of how human perception operates. When we look at a situation, like a company, we see individuals—individuals acting, making decisions, doing great or awful things. The context in which this happens, the industry and general economic environment, the actions of all of those people we don’t see, are less obvious and vivid.

How else isn’t agile perfect? You tell me.

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4 thoughts on “Agile Isn’t Perfect”

  1. Hey Tanner, nice post!

    I often frame things from the perspective of future-me. If I’m doing something that will make future-me unhappy, I should probably do something different. Especially at forks where there’s an easy-right-now often and a better-in-the-long-run option, the latter is usually the most effective and efficient in the end.

    I once joined a team that had a page called “Problems for Future Us”. Right away I started pushing to not add anything to it but instead to resolve the issue when it came up. If it was too big to do that mid sprint, make a ticket and push the PO to prioritize it so we didn’t just keep punting difficult decisions. It got us off our heels so we could actually start making headway on the things that actually mattered.

    1. Is this Galen of the Bob persuasion? I hope life is treating you right, my friend. 🙂

      Great story and great approach! Thanks for sharing. I do have one worry though. Always-me has been accused of being an idealist. (I’m undecided if I agree with that feedback.) I usually get around that with a bias toward action; it keeps me practical. Still, I worry that my future-me will be unsatisfied with more things than he should be.

  2. Excellent insight Tanner as always! I have to admit this made me pause and think a bit and most of my comments may be a rambling of different thoughts but that is not really unusual for me 🙂

    1. At the basic level, agile has to be flawed because it is implemented, executed and structured by humans, which as we all know are flawed so how can we expect perfection without knowing what perfection is or looks like?
    2. Brings me to looking up definitions of perfect. One is “being entirely without fault or defect” and I know I personally have never worked on an any project or transformation that meets that definition, so exit stage left.
    3. Another definition of perfect though is “going to, reaching, or hitting the intended target”. Now that is something that we can probably reach consensus on, requiring of course we have started with some form of metrics or hypothesis that form said target. I can say I have worked in environments that have hit the target, but if you were interviewing me about this and I said it was executed without flaw or error, you would thank me for my time and show me the door
    4. There are so many cognitive biases at play in organizations and unless you spend the appropriate amount of time to identify them, I think most people end up adopting the IKEA bias “The tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result” Take out the “…furniture from IKEA’” piece and insert your agile framework of choosing and that is what most people end up with, whether that was the intended target or not, they settle for it, at least for awhile.
    5. Humans want binary answers, which rarely exist in our space as there are a lot of abstract ideas that are interpreted through the cognitive bias lens. As such, one perfect view is different from another’s view and that is where the experience of the coach comes in. Not to push one view of perfection down on people, but rather allow conversation to occur and reach a consensus on what does perfect look like for us, right now in this context that will allow us to move forward and learn more.

    History has shown us that what is considered perfect changes based on experiences, cultural perceptions and biases. I suspect it will continue to evolve as people look for “a better way”.


    1. Thanks, Bruce. My own thoughts:

      As it applies to #1, agreed. I realized as I wrote that most of the problems I listed were human problems more than they were agile problems. 😉 I think that’s less so for the agile as the long play, and I didn’t discuss how to measure a mindset which also is less a human problem, I think, but that’s debatable.

      As it applies to #2 and #3, very true. However, I’ve run into many agilists who choose to gloss over the imperfections. I think reflecting on them and discussing them is an important way to help the novice grow to be a veteran. And it also might reveal a blindspot or three.

      As it applies to #4, biases are fun, aren’t they? I live most of my day doing my best of being aware of them, and on a daily basis realizing I’ve done a terrible job of it. Some days, it’s frustrating, but I enjoy a good challenge.

      As it applies to #5, I’ll leave you with this … Agile is simple. Everything we do to achieve it is complicated.

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