fragile agile

But Why Is It So (Fr)Agile?

If this agile thing is so great, then why doesn’t it always stick? And if we can get it to stick, why does it require so much upkeep? Why can it sometimes be so fragile? Time and again, I’ve helped teams, people, and organizations with their transformations, and in many cases, I’ve seen it either go sideways or slowly regress. Why though? Shouldn’t it be able to stand on its own? After teams see its benefits, shouldn’t the transformation gain momentum by the better outcomes it creates? Today, let’s talk about why that’s not always true.

Is it us?

Better yet, is it me? Maybe I’m a terrible coach. It’s certainly a possibility, but it would make for a rather bleak blog post. So for the moment, I hope you’re willing to suspend the skepticism. So what about us?

I’m sure all the agile infighting doesn’t help. Many argue that SAFe is crap, or that Scrum is not agile, even me. Some blame consultants for the Agile Industrial Complex, which prefixes everything with “agile,” cookie cuts and commercializes adoptions, treats agility as a destination and not a journey, and then imposes their solution on others. In fact in our eagerness to help teams, how many of our organizations–how many of us–have required a team to use Scrum instead of extending an invitation for change? Shame on us. I worry this is doing more damage than good.

Further, I’m near certain we can’t agree what agility is. Some point to the manifesto. Some call it a mindset and a way of being. Others, like myself, try to explain it by way of a value proposition. Does that worry you? I enjoy the flexibility of our domain, but I worry it’s dangerous in the wrong hands. Similarly, Ant had an interesting hypothesis using Fogg’s Behavior Model, and I think I agree:

We continue to fail because the barrier to adopt is too high compared to the perceived utility.

Is it them?

I hesitate here. After all, it’s not some false dichotomy of us versus them, and if we view it in such a way, we’re doomed to failure. “They” are not the enemy but our employers and our colleagues. They are the people we serve; however, I’ll pose it in such a way because this isn’t about blame. Instead, it’s about unpacking a problem, understanding it from different angles, and using the knowledge to help others. So what is it then?

Is it that the notion that the “smart” people tell the “dumb” people how to do the work? Perhaps, this might have been appropriate 100 years ago, and perhaps this model brought about the industrial age so is it what we rail against now? If so, how can we convince them that they’re mistaken? What data or arguments can we pose that will sway them? In fact, that brings about an interesting dilemma.

What data or arguments would convince you that agility isn’t beneficial?

Many of us get frustrated because the skeptics–the Taylorists–dig in their heels so firmly, but aren’t we doing the same? What’s to say we’re right, and they’re wrong? Could someone provide us indisputable evidence that would convince us that, in all contexts, agile is fruitless way of operating? Seriously, pause for a moment and think. I’m having a hard time coming up with something, and if we can’t be convinced, is it hypocritical of us to criticize them for the same?

Then again, maybe this is an issue of slow and steady change. Agile got its name in 2001, and although I’m certain it’s been around longer than 18 years, it’s still relatively new. In that case, Mark Twain’s advice may apply:

A habit can’t be tossed out the window. It must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.

Finally, Frank has an interesting take, I think. A transformation is like a diet. We say we want to lose a few pounds or want a six pack so we change our diet and hire a personal trainer. After a few months, we proudly achieve our goal. We pat ourselves on the back for our hard work, and to celebrate, we have a cheat meal or skip a work out. The consequences of this one cheat aren’t noticeable so we do it again. Again, no noticeable consequences. Over time and as the cheats add up, our gains slowly slip away possibly unnoticed.

Agile is a lifestyle change, similar to the way a diet is. Once you lose the weight you wanted to lose, you cannot simply go back to your old way of eating.

Frank Rios

Or is it something else?

For example, nearly every company starts out with the right mindset. It starts with everyone as advocates for the customers, understanding and empathizing with those inside the company and those we are serving. We all possess a broad understanding of the domain, engaged in our work, and the realization that effectiveness matters. If we aren’t, we die. After all, if our solution doesn’t solve the customers’ problem, they won’t buy our product. It requires us to take risks and to try new things so we survive in one of two ways:

Get lucky with our first or second go or try lots of things and quick.

Then it shifts. Over time and with more cash flow, we turn internally to increase profits. We shift our focus away from pleasing the customer and look for methods to instead be more efficient. It’s only prudent. After all, devs are expensive, and as a parent of two college-bound teenagers myself, I can empathize.

We want the engineers focused on code not customers; that’s the product managers’ job now. We shy away from taking risks and shift from measuring success not by customer impact but by ensuring the project management-driven teams are “on time and under budget.” Our feedback loops are no longer measured in days with our strapped cash reserves but measured in quarterly earnings. We build silos, we stifle innovation, and we play Tetris with our quarterly plans attempting to eke out every bit of productivity from all our “resources.”

Culture is a finicky thing, isn’t it? It’s created by one small decision after another. It’s created by the things we do and don’t say. By the ways we do and don’t act. It’s implicit. Quiet. Ever present. And we should create it with purpose. Otherwise, it’ll create itself, without design, and likely without consideration of what’s best for its people.

So how can we make transformation stickier? And what can we do about all these obstacles? Let’s talk about that another today. Today though, I wanted to explore the problem. Did I overlook anything or miscalculate? Let me know.

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