How Agile vs. Non-Agile Misses the Point

So the time has come – the Agile elite is calling the end of Agile. I guess it was inevitable: In the last few months before reading Jurgen Appelo’s forward-looking article “The Death of Agile Courses”, I’ve seen several (rather backwards-focused) posts on social media in which experienced Agile gurus have un-ironically complained about the fact that “Agile” now means something different from what it did when the Agile Manifesto was first signed in 2001 – six years before the introduction of the first iPhone.
I thought that was entertaining stuff: The supposed frontrunners of organizational transformation complaining about change in their own sandbox; willing to kill off Agile altogether rather than allowing it to evolve. You’re absolutely right, it means something different to us today! You brought Agile into the world and it’s growing up – what did you think was going to happen?

I guess it’s true in this context, too: It’s easier to give advice than to take it, especially if it’s your own – see John Cutler’s article “The Agile Police”. Anyway, I think the debate whether or not Agile is dying misses a crucial point: Agile and Non-Agile are not necessarily the polar opposites that semantics may lead us to believe. And Agile – or a single alternative to it – most certainly won’t be the end of the road.

Agreed, the word “Agile” has been thrown around a lot – it reminds me of “online” when I was in advertising: It was new to lots of contexts, it was hip and apparently everyone was supposed to do it. Today, the former “online unit” I was a part of at my first agency is surely disbanded – it has to be: While still not everything is “online”, even today (case in point: I’m sitting at a pub enjoying a beer while writing this), we don’t make a conscious effort to separate online/offline in our conceptual efforts anymore: We make an effort to better understand and design customer experiences – and then work backwards to the technologies/media suitable for providing them. It’s what Steve Jobs taught us in this beautiful response to a provocation at the 1997 Apple Developers Conference or like Sam McAffee tells us in his more recent article “The World Doesn’t Want Your App”.
The same is true for designing superior work environments: We need to start with the employee/client experience and work our way backwards to management and organizational design. “Form follows function” in this context becomes “delivery follows experience”.

What we’re currently experiencing regarding Agile is similar to the fading hype of “online” or “apps” – Agile is no longer the one hip thing you absolutely need to do, come hell or high water: It’s becoming one of several options for delivery. The overall goal is alignment; the optimal overlap of superior client and employee experience in the economical sweet spot – this will be different for every organization, employee and client and it remains subject to change over time.
We attempt to achieve this alignment by adapting structures and processes to further an organization’s individual goal at a given point in time. To do this, we might pick certain aids from the Agile toolbox if they suit our current needs – or we might choose not to: Prescribed change is doomed from the start anyway, plus I don’t believe every department in every company needs a scrum board to perform cargo cult rituals in front of it. And if they actually do right now, who’s to say it will be the right choice for the next project or tomorrow’s client demands? Agile frameworks come with natural limitations as they are not subject to constant adaption themselves – so it’s an easy mistake to simply exchange one static dogmatism for another when “implementing Agile”.

“But Agile is not a toolbox, it’s a mindset!” I hear the old-school Agilists shouting. I’ve heard you preach that in keynotes and articles, but theoretical Agile doesn’t get the job done: Agile itself has no inherent value regarding the achievement of business goals; it can only temporarily facilitate the creation of value by providing alignment in a specific, real-life setting – like how a CRM system is helpful only if it caters to your actual CRM business cases.
To me, applied Agile has to be both: The right mindset will do little good if you don’t know how to apply it outside your mind. And the right tools without an idea what to build allow for little more than tinkering with the status quo – a dangerous trap that’s easy to fall into.

As for the mindset itself: I believe that in the 16 years since the birth of Agile, society and the working life as a whole have evolved quite a bit – we tend to forget or overlook these developments because of everything that’s still not adequate by our early-adopter standards (and that is quite a lot as I wrote in my last article). But it’s true: Western society is gradually adopting the work life principles on which Agile was built – and just like it happened with “online” and “apps” they will eventually become part of the new normal; something obvious and self-evident that needs no explicit mentioning, let alone coaching (not textbook Agile, mind you, but the underlying principles of our perception of work).

In the New Economy (further explored by Mark Poppenborg in this worthwhile German article) “Have you switched to Agile?” will be a pointless question in the same way that “Have you switched to online?” already is – of course you’ll have made that transfer wherever it made sense; it’s just the way the world evolves. To debate Agile vs. Non-Agile (or vs. any single alternative) falls short of addressing the extent of the transformation occurring around us: We’ll transcend this one-dimensional debate and ask bigger, more open questions – like “How might we offer better work experiences for everyone?”
The current debate is still a useful stepping stone, though, as it allows for better understandings if we enter it interested in learning and refining our viewpoints (and not only want to “win an argument”): Thesis and anti-thesis colliding, the friction between the two leading to a higher-level synthesis – it’s Hegelian dialectic at work.

Have fun discovering what the right questions are for you. And if in your context the answer to them is a platform like Jurgen’s Agility Scales, that’s great. If it is a Scrum practice, wonderful. If you’re winning with Holacracy, awesome! I’m betting that in the future, more often than not the answer will be something that doesn’t even have a name yet – and I’m excited to discover what it will be together with our clients.

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