17 February 2020

Agile Waste You Might Remove | Why this topic?

Similarly to the retro series I have planned for much of this year I thought I would publish a series of posts on "Agile Waste." before I start wring short posts on the topic, I'll give a more lengthy background to why I am spending my time on this.

It begins with the fact that I care about you.  Readers of this blog are a mix of people I know well, I have casually met and people I have yet to meet or perhaps never will. Regardless, you matter to me.

We are all part of an industry and the better this industry operates the better we all do.  But better isn't just more efficient or making more money. It's making a positive contribution to the world. So what I hope from my work in general, and this series in particular is that I can help relieve you of some of the pressures at work that are driven by short sightedness, limited knowledge and mediocrity.

This writing doesn't make things better. It just provides an opportunity. The opportunity is for you and others to learn something new, to be reminded of something you know or to help you look deeper into an idea.  That's not an improvement to your workplace or to the industry.  It's just a platform.

What's required next is action.  Action can start by talking, but ultimately it needs to be a person, perhaps you, leading a change for the better that results in a real change not just to how we do tasks, but how we behave and think abut work.  We need to constantly work to help our team mates think critically and challenge the situation they find themselves in for the better.

This doesn't just mean "let's make retrospectives better." It means really thinking about what you are doing, how you are working with others, what you are working on and even who you are working for.

We are all going to be dead soon enough.  Take a moment to think about the legacy you want to leave.  Realise that big aspirations start with small steps.  Have the courage to speak and act locally, and see where that first step takes you.

I am framing this series as "Agile Waste." Why focus on Agile? Surely there is plenty of waste out there we can focus on without limiting ourselves? Well... Yes there is, but I have a particular interest in what's right and wrong about Agile.

Once upon a time Agile was an antidote to overly bureaucratic approaches to work.  It was aligned to good principles beyond those described in the manifesto. It also sought to delegate more decision making about how work was done to the frontline.  It implied closer intimacy with customers and elevated our views on what a good team really was. And, of course, many other well known benefits.

Over the last decade and a half people have innovated and elaborated on the agile foundations laid out in the 1990s and early 2000's and now we have a highly complex eco-system that is full of great ideas but also full of practices that are simply popular because they are memetic.

[Breakout: When I talk about memes I am not talking about the kiddie version of fascist frogs. dropping shades or whatever is popular this month; it's the broader concept originated by Dawkins way back in the 70's; the notion that ideas spread based on their ease of distribution rather than their inherent value or foundation in truth. But we know that. Our modern political age shows us that managing a message, any message, effectively is the path to power, and that facts and earnestness are easily undermined by shouty people who inject complexity into the facts at hand and then continue to shout repetitively simple slogans that lead to simple actions. Thanks Marketing.]

What's wrong with Agile today? What is Agile today?

There is Enterprise Agile famously hated by software engineers for abandoning technical excellence.  There is also Startup agile which is lightweight but also often undisciplined and full of rookie mistakes that have been passed down from lightly experienced consultants who dropped in for a few weeks four years ago at the founder's previous company. There is agile for Program Managers with systems and structures elaborated to best coordinate across many teams. There is the Agile of Product managers that has often been corrupted into the PM as mini CEO delusion.  There is the agile of design where discovery and iteration of design can take months before you engage a software developer to share a view.  there is the agile of software developers, probably closest to the original vision, but also beset by behaviours that are described as flaccid agile; a rush to move forward, but no clarity on direction or what the finish line looks like.  Lastly there is the agile of the agile industrial complex. Coaches, consultants, scrum-masters, certification bodies, trainers, and more that stumbled across a good idea and found them selves in a position of authority over others, but with no skin in the actual game.

Recently new movements within Agile have emerged; Modern Agile and Heart of Agile.  Both have simple ideas at their heart.  Both are fighting a corrupted industry from the inside though. Agile has become a hydra; with many different personalities in many different contexts.  I wonder whether these challengers will make a difference. I suspect they do make a difference but the tide is going out on Agile.

So, yeah. I have thought about this topic a bit.  I got some good value out of agile when it was first pretty new. I was able to leverage the ideas and deliver outcomes more reliably and easily that I otherwise would have.  I an the people around me enjoyed our work more and received more appreciation for the work we did. (Not really monetary unfortunately.) I am even a part of the Agile Industrial Complex by hosting LAST Conference across Australia. And while the way I program the event specifically tries to avoid the world of propagating best practices I know we at least partly fail on that front.


There is a lot of kickback against agile. It's been going on for many years. (The first major declaration of this I head of was this speech.) Agile is also in the toolkits of the major consultancies. And it's now a thing all the cool kids have and so the slower, late adopters are now pursuing transformation via Agile.

Lastly, "Business Agility" is a growing thing.  The bottleneck have moved out of the technology teams, out of the design teams and agile is now an opportunity for everyone everywhere. Agile is now an opportunity to improve marketing, HR, customer service, distribution and sales.  It is closer to the strategic apex of the organisation than ever before.

All of this means the people who are part of the Agile Industrial Complex are less experienced and less nuanced that once upon a time.  And so here we are; there are lots of people peddling unsound ideas in the name of Agile.  This may mean that Agile as a meaningful term is dead. But it also means that the word is an attractor for people who probably need to know more than what they are being told.

In this essay I have writing long and large about some things that I care about.  If you made it this far it means you also care about the world of work and the chaos agile seems the creating (or is floating around in.)

In the series ahead I'll be keeping it short to align to most people's needs for 1 minute solutions.  I'll ship out the first post in a week and maybe hold a fortnightly cadence for as long as I can maintain it.  If you'd like to volunteer ideas, send them to me via twitter @brown_note.

Take care and as usual I would love to hear feedback on this post, the future ones and what improvements you try for.

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