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The battle for Agile’s soul

agile theatre, the future of agile

“The Agile community – originally a community where people create and evolve new ideas – has been replaced by an industry selling canned solutions,” says Luca Minudel, founder and CEO of SmHarter.

“My focus nowadays” he says bluntly, “is to help practitioners and organisations to benefit from genuine Agile, and to stay away from all the downsides and fake Agile and the imposters.”

It’s safe to say Minudel, who has worked with clients including BP, the AA and Mercer, has strong feelings about the way Agile methodology is being marketed. It’s also safe to say that he is not alone: speaking with The Stack, many in the Agile community bemoan the rise of “Agile theatre” – in which enterprises deploy some performative Agile branding without making any fundamental changes to how projects are managed.

The Agile Manifesto – which calls for “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and notes that “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams” – turns 21 this year, and Agile has been fought over, loved, hated, declared dead, resurrected, criticised and exploited over the whole of those two decades. But what started as a radical solution to the challenges of software development has become a superficial, commoditised buzzword, poorly understood and poorly implemented – at least according to some.

The future of Agile: Adoption is certainly still booming…

According to Digital.ai’s 15th State of Agile report the adoption of Agile methodology has seen an “explosive increase”, with adoption of Agile within software development teams jumping from 37% to 86% year-on-year. It also reports one of the key challenges to Agile adoption – organisational culture at odds with Agile values – had fallen by around half in recent years, in terms of the number of respondents citing it, sitting at 43% in 2021.

“This year’s report sees an explosive increase in Agile adoption.”

15th Annual State of Agile Report.

Are the critics wrong then? Not necessarily. And often problems start at the top of an organisation. In the same report, 42% of respondents said there was general resistance to change in their organisations. And in the first State of Agile Coaching report from the Business Agility Institute and Scrum Alliance, published last year, “leadership as a barrier to implementing agility” was cited as the number one challenge by respondents. Challenges two and three were “resistance to change” and “lack of understanding about Agile” respectively.

“Organisational culture is the frontline impediment to agile and adopting,” noted Michael Easson, Agile learning consultant at QA, in response to the Digital.ai report. “It seems evident now that we need to turn our attention away from [infighting] and instead focus more on the leadership and effectiveness of agile teams. If we don’t, then I can foresee next year’s survey reflecting the mass exodus from agile, with reasons ranging from poor management support and change resistance to a company culture that is at odds with the values of agile.”

The bitter work of Agile

The word “agile” sounds great: quick, nimble, fast to move – what organisation wouldn’t want to be “agile”? Aside from some pejorative comparisons to canine agility training, it’s easy to see the appeal, and not just for software developers: a 2017 Deloitte report claimed 94% of companies said agility was critical to their success.

But just as with terms such as “sustainable” and “compassionate”, there is a gulf between saying the word and being the word: “It’s going to be hard and tough, and there’s going to be big challenges, a lot of stress, involved with real change. And you have to acknowledge that as well – it’s going to have to be worth it. Because you don’t get it for free,” Sjoerd Nijland, Agile trainer and founder of Serious Scrum tells The Stack.

The former e-business architect at Bugaboo adds: “Agility does require commitment; if it doesn’t work, figure out how to make it work, work through the challenges, don’t give up and say, oh, that doesn’t work.”

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This sounds reasonable, but the reality of just how much change is needed can be hard for some to swallow. Take one specific criticism of Agile: that it doesn’t scale well, and that in pursuit of a “minimum viable product” developers will waste significant time writing code which will end up being thrown away.

“I think it’s good that you throw stuff away,” says Nijland.

“So this mindset: do you think it’s a waste, that you throw away stuff you don’t want or need anymore? Or is that a good sign of progress you’re making? It comes down to a reluctance to let go of things.”

He talks about “technical debt”, one of the key concepts in Agile: “We spend so much focus, so much time on building new, we forget about maintaining what’s already there and throwing stuff out that we don’t need. It’s like maintaining a garden. If you’re not spending time weeding, it gets overgrown, it’s going to kill your garden.”

For executives not well-versed in Agile concepts, it is easy to see how such ideas – and others including team-led projects and non-hierarchical organisations – could be anathema. Unfortunately, there is a solution.

Agile theatre

Just as organisations can use green-washing to appear more sustainable, so they can use Agile theatre to appear to be more agile without making any fundamental changes. And while there are unscrupulous operators who provide “Agile” certification without adding anything of value whatsoever, the charge of “Agile theatre” is, controversially, also directed at the largest Agile framework in use: Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), which aims to help larger organisations adopt Agile methodologies previously used mostly by smaller teams.

“People need to wake up and stop this pretentious crap.”

Sjoerd Nijland on Agile Theatre

The Digital.ai report says 37% of its respondents use SAFe, more than four times as many as use the next-largest framework (Scrum@Scale/Scrum of Scrums): “Over the past five surveys, we have seen the use of SAFe grow significantly to become the dominant approach,” the report notes.

“Because of the demand from the market, there has been an increase in offering detrimental scaled frameworks, the big offender being SAFe – and also bigger consultancy firms with absolutely no experience in Agile started to offer canned solution and recipes,” says Minudel, specifically naming McKinsey, Deloitte and Gartner.

He is also scathing about SAFe and the consultants, for example claiming a popular article from McKinsey “uses Agile terminology to describe the same old outdated ideas”. He sees these frameworks as things which are “being imposed, top-down, in a hierarchical way” – something which goes against the precepts of Agile.

(He also claims there is a significant amount of fraud around the Agile industry, and says he has been offered money to link to or reference poor-quality content, and has come across “fake Agile conferences” and training programmes where the trainers will help attendees pass an exam.)

SAFe meanwhile is a legitimate framework – but practitioners such as Minudel and Nijland say it just isn’t Agile.

While Nijland is not as harsh in his criticism of SAFe, noting that the framework is “not doing a bad job” of walking the fine line between pragmatism and working towards fundamental change, he says: “I think on some levels they’re redefining things. And they’re playing these terminology games, which I think is detrimental to what they’re trying to achieve.”

On Agile theatre in general Nijland has strong words: “It gives you a quick impression that what you’re doing is Agile because you’re relabelling ‘tasks’ to ‘stories’ – it’s not doing anything, it obscures rather than creates transparency… It’s just ridiculous and I think people need to wake up and stop this pretentious crap, because you’re not going to get any of the gains if you keep doing that.”

Minudel believes this can have serious consequences: “Younger Agile professionals, that learned Agile through those Agile transformation and scaled frameworks … have never experienced what good really looks like in Agile, and so they have a limited understanding of what Agile really is and how it really works.”

Are users happy?

Others are more pragmatic. “I know there’s a lot of different views around what they call the ‘framework wars’. To be honest, I got bored of that, I don’t find any value in it,” says Kram Ali, founder of Acuity Applied, an Agile consulting firm that has worked with local and national UK government bodies, the BBC and others.

“I got bored of that, I don’t find any value in it.”

Kram Ali on the ‘framework wars’

“The heart of this is, how is that thing we want to do ultimately helping the customer? How is it helping us to organise ourselves to help the customer meet that particular need?” says Ali.

“In my mind, I’m just thinking about how can I help my teams to be more productive, more healthy, to be more metric driven, to be more collaborative,” he adds. noting that he takes “bits and pieces” from different frameworks to optimise the outcome depending on the team he’s working with.

The architects of SAFe, which is operated by the firm Scaled Agile, are unfazed by the criticism of their framework. “Anybody can have their view – whoever writes an article, my question would be, have you tried it? And if you tried it, and it didn’t work for you? Great, that’s fine. Here’s all that I can say about this: there’s a lot of customers who are doing it and are very successful,” says Inbar Oren, chief product officer for SAFe and principal consultant at Scaled Agile.

He acknowledges the issue of Agile theatre is a real one: “Are there places where people are doing SAFe, and just saying SAFe, using the words but actually doing exactly what they did before? I’m pretty sure there are, just like I’ve seen that happen with Scrum. And I’ve seen that happen with anything.

“I remember sitting with a customer a few years back, and they engaged no people who had actually experienced doing SAFe, they just read the articles and tried to do it by themselves.

“And they were interpreting things in creative, but really wrong ways, that drove them to do things that I would actually agree are bad, not very good Agile,” Oren adds.

He is pragmatic about the potential of even badly-applied Agile methodology: “Let’s say somebody does Agile in their organisation, and it’s not really good. I would ask a question: is it still better than what happened there before? Let’s assume just for sake of argument that it’s a little bit better, it’s 20% better than before. But still, if you look at it through an Agile lens, it’s bad Agile. It’s still 20% better, and that’s what they could do right now.”

But pragmatism has its limits for Ali: “If it’s just a theatre, and we’re just using doing the same old thing with a different badge, it’s unlikely you’re going to see real benefit.” While he thinks any adoption of, or even conversation around, Agile principles can be beneficial, this is not enough: “If you just stick with that, and you’re not looking at the next step… I would say it’s a journey. You should never stop improving.”

The future of Agile

As it stands, the market for Agile among enterprises is moving firmly towards the models put forward by Scaled Agile and the large consultancy firms, and Agile purists such as Minudel, and Agile manifesto co-signatory Ken Schwaber, a long-time critic of SAFe, are deeply unhappy. Others criticise what they perceive as an overly dogmatic adherence to Agile principles – “the study of the writings of Ken Schwaber, rote learning and certifications” as Paul Whiteside of UK consultancy firm Aston Beck put it.

But many are equally unhappy about what they see as infighting in the Agile community, including Ali and QA’s Easson. “I feel sorry for the layman who’s caught up in the middle of this, it makes it really hard for them to really understand and get the value that’s here,” says Ali.

That value within Agile methodology is clear to many. UK broadcaster ITV is in the middle of an Agile-driven transformation programme at the moment and HSBC Noel Quinn just this week boasting that “15% of our total technology workforce in the global businesses and functions were aligned to at least one agile team per agile blueprint. This marks a significant improvement from 5% in 2020.”

Nijland offers a note of optimism about the competition within Agile: “All of it starts out with really good intentions. And that’s what we have to acknowledge first; we start out with some real needs, some real ambitions, and real good intentions… We see one company doing it this way, we see another company doing it that way, doesn’t make either company wrong.

“It’s good that we have lots of different understandings and ideas about it, because it promotes creativity. We’re all on this journey to discover better ways. The Agile Manifesto starts with that: we’re uncovering better ways by doing it, and helping each other to do it. So at the very basic level, what it means is, we learn by doing, and by supporting each other and sharing that.”

See also: TSB COO Suresh Viswanathan on building an IT team, tackling an analogue legacy, and “innovating on the fly”

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