The Agile Management Fad

Is Agile a management fad?  Is its blistering adoption throughout the world rooted in a proven value driven approach or the hysteria of the masses clamoring for a new trend to profit from and identify with?

Fad – defined

According to Wikipedia a management fad has certain characteristics. Let’s look through these defining elements and see if Agile can fit this definition.

1. New Jargon for Existing Business Processes?  Seems that there are plenty of examples that fit this like:

Manifesto = Mission

User Story = Requirement

Planning Poker = Estimating

Daily Scrum = Daily 15 minute meeting

Scrum Master = Coordinator/Facilitator with no authority.

2. External Consultants Who Specialize In the Implementation of the FadWould anyone deny that agile has these in abundance?  Agile consultants are everywhere and firms specializing in agility are in no short supply.

3. A certification or appraisal process performed by an external agency for a fee.  Yep. Many of these exist. Although they don’t all agree with one another on the merits for earning that certification, CSM, CSP, PMI-ACP, and the icAgile body of certifications represent a diversity of vehicles for achieving formal certification.

4. Amending the job titles of existing employees to include references to the fad.  There could be room for debate on this one, but a short search on monster.com or dice.com show a plethora of ‘agile project manager’ versus ‘project manager’ positions.   Equally, we’ve seen software developers that specialize in agile practices now called “ninjas” and there is the  “agile scrum coach” that now replaces the old title “application development manager”.

5. Claims of a measurable business improvement via measurement of a metric that is defined by the fad itself.  Velocity is the most prominent measure that comes to mind.  Further velocity is defined in increments the fad defines: story points.

6. An internal sponsoring department or individual that gains influence due to the fad’s implementation.  Organizational Agile Coaches, or an Agile Center of Excellence are two examples that have become common.

7.  Big words and complex phrases.  This one is kind of subjective, but YAGNI might quality. SolutionsIQ even published an agile glossary so you can keep up with all the terms & definitions.

Fad? Yes.  Value?  Yes.

So by this definition agile is, well,…a fad.   But does that mean agile practices have no value?  Here’s some of the things we’ve learned ( or re-learned ) from agility:

1.  Daily communication among team members really matters when the work is complex.

2.  The people doing the work must be accountable for it.  Don’t let them hide behind a project manager.  Let them take pride in what they do.

3.  Requirements require constant communication, clarification and understanding.  It’s a continuous phase communication cycle, not a document.

4.  Regular, timely feedback on work improves quality and job satisfaction.

5.  Teams need help coordinating, facilitating and communicating between themselves and others.

Agile’s popularity is still growing.  Clearly some of us see benefit even as the marketing machine twists agility into something it never really was or will ever be.  Like management fads before it ( Six Sigma, TQM, and CMMI ) agile has made an impact on how we create value.

Is there a cult following?  Of course.  Everyone likes being popular and making money.  But the end state of the agile bubble will be a reconciliation back to reality.  There’s no silver bullet.  Problems still exist and we’re never fast or perfect enough for the shareholders or customers.  Room for improvement is omnipresent.

Summary

The fever pitch of the fad is a beacon.  Full value has been realized, copied, marketed and redistributed without concern for the result.  While time exists and there is still competitive advantage…the crowd still gathers.  But, the drivers of innovation have long moved off the curve of agility, hybridizing and envisioning new methods and tools for further improvement.  Another wave will again crest and break onto the shores of software management and leadership bringing the promise of ultimate productivity and quality, but delivering only incremental improvement.

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Getting to Success Instead of Getting to Done

Projects are about getting things done…right?

Uh-Uh.

They’re unique, collaborative, human efforts endeavored to achieve success.  Success is can be defined with certain goals.  Success has a point, a place we reach and can say “Ah-ha!….we did it!”.   There’s a finish line.  Done, on the other hand, is never done.  Excuse the pun.  And the rhyme.

Done is an endless backlog.

Done is a never ending series of requests.

Done is code that’s never perfect.

Done is test cases that still need to be refined.

The fog of “Done” can envelop the project and the minds of our teams.  It obscures the truth.  We’re not looking to get everything “done”.  We’re looking to succeed.  Within success there is room for variation on “done”.

What Techniques Do You Use Most To Deliver?

The poll is multiple choice, and you can add your own too.

The “A” Word

Over commercialized, overused and mis-applied the word “agile” has become synonymous with being better, faster, and cheaper.  The hype around the “A” word is nonsense.  Most of the software vendors, consultants, and marketers plastering agile on everything are simply capitalizing on the popularity of some ideas that aren’t even correlated with what their selling.

Agility is not a panacea. It’s not a software tool.  It’s not a product you can buy.  To my opinion it was a state of mind, a way of approaching problem solving.

It’s now lost that meaning.  It’s original luster is awash in a sea of hyperbole and advertising.  When someone says they’re agile or they practice agility….I no longer know what they mean.  It might be that they read a book, they use some self-professed agile software tools, they have a poker planning card set, they bought a CSM certification, or they recently attended some conference on agile software development.   Stop Agilizing Everything was written in protest to the fluff, and monetization of agility.

Will it stop?  I doubt it.

Instead it will kill itself through abuse. Eventually it will become the worn fad of the day.  In disdain and disgust we’ll turn our backs on the “A” word and seek something with more substance.

Santa’s Workshop Goes Agile!

Among the aroma of fruit cake, hot cider, and sub-zero temperatures Santa Claus announced today that his North Pole Workshop would switch to using agile practices in toy production.  Santa sighted a number of reasons for the change, among them:

  • Increasing need to be first to market against growing competition.
  • Better collaboration between kids’ toy lists and toy developers.
  • Reducing the risk that kids don’t get what they want.
  • Increasing quality and accountability in toy development and delivery.

According to Santa, “We’ve analyzed this decision for some time and  it became clear that change was needed after re-reading little Timmy Todsnockerdellturtlefoof’s complaint letter from last year.  Instead of receiving a bicycle, as stipulated in his toy list; he got two fake icicles.”

The well publicized failure last year to meet the requirements of Timmy’s wish list was not the first time Santa’s North Pole Workshop hadn’t delivered, but in this day of social media and instant updates; the story took on a vicious viral characteristic….hitting #1 in the tweetosphere for a full month with the hash tag: #TimmyTodsnockerdellturtlefoofGotIcedBySanta.

When asked what type of agile practice the workshop would be adopting, Santa replied: “Scrum.  It’s well known, proven, and being used in some isolated corners of our workshop today.”  Some muted ‘boos’ could be heard from the audience.

Santa went on to say that Rudolph The Red Nosed Raindeer would head up the agile transformation of the North Pole Workshop in conjunction with an outside agile consulting firm to be named later.  That development confirmed for some that Rudolph was next in line to take over The North Pole.  Rudolph was on hand to comment to reporters after the announcement:

“We’re looking at one of the big 5 consulting firms, but we haven’t ruled out the smaller players.  Look, what’s important here is that we get to done. I have a nose for this kind of thing.  I’m not a dreamer..I’ve been a servant leader for a long time…I realize this transformation isn’t going to happen overnight, there will be pain and there’s a lot of existing process and procedure that will have to….well, frankly….go away.  But, one step at a time. I expect we’ll have a more detailed plan in May or April.  Talk to me then.”

Reactions among the North Pole elves was varied.  One older elf man pointed out that Santa had to be dragged “kicking and screaming to the decision.  He wasn’t on board at all.  Rudolph, Frosty, Mrs Claus and the Yeti really had to sell him on it.  When they broke out Timmy’s letter to remind Santa of the increasing defect rates in his shop….he went ballistic. I mean he really lost his cookies.  Then the Yeti put his foot down.  I think Santa knew what that meant.”

Others, like a younger elf woman, had a different opinion on the switch to agile:  “I’m fine with the whole agile thing, but I guess I don’t understand why they chose Scrum?  I mean….from what I read XP is way better and more applicable to our environment.  I really don’t think the elves, particularly the older ones, will like daily stand-ups. I mean most of them can barely wake up every day….let alone stand up.”

Still another view was held by Donner, “What about Kanban?  No one’s talking about Kanban, but in the reindeer house we use it all the time to limit HIP ( hooves in process). I bet Rudolph moves us there.  I think there’s going to be a power play here between Santa and Rudolph.  It’s a battle that’s been brewing for centuries.”

“Give me a break. Agile?  Really, let’s knock off the buzz and hype.   So we goof up on a few thousand toys out of the billions we make a year.  How’s agile gonna solve that?  I don’t get it.  I guess I’ll ride it out and see where this goes.  But limiting HIP in the reindeer house has done nothing but give some of us more time on our hands.  I don’t think that’s what Santa wants.”  said Blitzen.

Frosty, while at the announcement, declined to make any official comment but did say that he favored a balanced, pragmatic approach, one that would focus on the workshop’s needs rather than a dogmatic approach.

Mrs. Claus had this to say: “Rudolph is very bright.  I know he’ll make this work.  He knows where he’s going.”

Strangely, the Yeti, was not present.  But his footprint could be found in the comments that others made.

Outsiders also came to hear the announcement.  The Easter Bunny had this to say: “I understand what Santa’s doing and to be perfectly frank he’s in a different position from us in Easter Hollow.  He’s facing some real time to market issues and competition with Mom & Dad, Grandpa & Grandma, and others.  His competitors have real advantages in local sourcing, customer relationship management, and technology.  Santa just hasn’t kept up and now it’s time for a radical change.   I don’t think anything he’s doing is going to change our approach.  We pride ourselves on stability of delivery and with a 98.2% market share on Easter…we’re just not facing the same issues.”

The Easter Goose has the other 1.8% of the Easter market.

Merry Christmas agile community.  Enjoy your holidays, stay safe, and as always….take care. 😉

Predictive *AND* Adaptive Planning

Introduction

If you’ve managed projects for any length of time you understand the truth.  It’s almost never the case that a project is completely predictive ( waterfall ) or completely adaptive ( agile ).  It’s a mix.  There are needs for both in any project.  Those project managers, companies, and consultancies that integrate both approaches into their project management efforts are hybridizing the agile movement and shaping the reality of the future.  Let’s look at some examples that are well known, visible, historical and outside the IT market.  Why?  I want to defuse the agile vs waterfall debate for a moment and abstract things away from technology to help us see the broader picture.

Example 1: Lewis & Clark Expedition

The expedition by Lewis and Clark to navigate the Missouri River and map the western territories was an immense, RISKY, long term project entertained by a focused project team of professionals.  This is a startup.  Their goal was to map a water born ( river ) path to the Pacific Ocean.  To accomplish this goal some level up front planning was required.  You simply couldn’t plop two guys down in St. Louis and say: “For the next two weeks go up the Missouri River, then have a retrospective on what you learned, share that learning with your sponsor in Washington D.C. and plan for the next two weeks of river navigation.”

Lewis & Clark needed supplies, people who knew the land, logistical expertise, some plan up front to start the mission. But while an up front plan was necessary, much was not known.  This is where adaptive planning comes in.  They would need to adapt as maps, events, and people turned out to be unreliable or poorly understood: winters were more severe, the Missouri didn’t go all the way to the Pacific and great Mountain chain blocked their path to the ocean, and accidentally injuries and sickness delayed progress.

While not having an up front plan could have delayed and increased the cost of their project…not being able to adapt along the way would have killed it.  It was an experiment, a gamble, and to make it work required flexibility and persistence.

Standish group would have called Lewis & Clark a failure because they exceeded their baseline schedule.

Example 2:  Apollo missions to the moon.

The missions to land men on the moon and safely return them during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States were massive projects of unknown risk and horrible complexity.  Failure would bring down a nation and a philosophy ( democratic freedom).  They closely mirror big ERP implementations or suitably large custom software development efforts in Fortune 500 businesses today.

Could these have succeeded without predictive planning?  It’s hard to imagine they would have.  There were so many variables and unknowns that were required to be nailed down before implementation to ensure success.  In fact, predictive planning to the Nth degree is what made this possible and successful.  Accounting for every risk, having a mitigation plan for every risk, and carefully coordinating all the sub-projects to the common goal would have been hard to accomplish via strict adaptive planning.

This isn’t to say that adaptive planning didn’t play a role in adjusting and dealing with risks/issues along the way ( think Apollo 13 ), but this project was almost completely predictive by necessity at the top-level.  There was too much at stake ( human life and a nation’s perceived status in the world ).

Even though the Apollo moon missions proved to the world that the U.S. was the preeminent technology leader vs the U.S.S.R  and would be revered for decades to come….this project, using Standish’s metrics, would have been deemed ——-> FAIL.

Example 3: Building a Table in Garage with Your Woodworking Equipment.

A more personal, and human project…building a table is something that’s been done many times in the past.  This is like building a new e-commerce site for a company.  It’s been done before, they could have just bought a vended product, but for some business reason they want to build their own.

Ok, since it’s been done before there’s a pattern, and we borrow from it.  We download the diagram, purchase our materials, and define our plan.  This is predictive.  As we begin to execute we discover flaws in the plan or the procurement process.  Wrong nails were purchased or the leg supports were cut too small.   These events require us to adapt.

After building the table we’d dust off our hands and say “Wow, that’s a little over budget and it took some extra time, but I got what I wanted.”   We’d call it a success.  Standish would call it a failure.

More?

I could go on.  What about Michelangelo’s works?  How about building the Dubai Tower?  Great human efforts ( projects ) are vision building.  Successful completion and delivery requires a range of approaches and a commitment to the end goal.

Summary

Hopefully you can visualize the adaptive *AND* predictive elements in these projects.  It wasn’t one or the other.  It was a gradient.  That’s where the present is and the future will continue to be.  Hybridization is good.  It isn’t about agile vs waterfall. It’s about achievement, belief, and success.