Politics and the Agile Religion, a Rant

Twelve score ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Less than one score ago, our fathers brought forth on this industry a new philosophy, conceived in self-organization, and dedicated to the proposition that individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change hold more value than processes and tools, comprehensive documentation, contract negotiation, and following a plan.

Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this.

When Lincoln made that speech, we were in the middle of a bloody civil war. In the 15 score and thirteen years since, we’ve experienced an industrial revolution, a knowledge revolution, two world wars, and dozens of economic ups and downs. Through that, we’ve seen the nation move from one that is young, scrappy and hungry to one that is largely corporate owned, highly leveraged, and dominated by unpopular politicians.

I don’t propose to know why we landed here, but Arnold Toynbee’s theory is rather interesting. He wrote A Study of History, which was published in volumes between 1931 and ’61. One of the volumes, “A Schism in the Soul”, suggests that all civilizations rise and fall according to a specific pattern.

When a civilization is conceived, it is led by a creative minority with a self-confident sense of direction, style, and principles. Over time, that creative minority disappears; either by death, disinterest, or disgust; and is replaced by what he calls “the dominant majority”. This dominant majority is still leading the civilization, but they are disconnected from the vision and principles that drove the creative minority and inspired the rest of the civilization to follow along. This means that they’re leading, but they’re not setting the example. The result, as he puts it, is a rejection of the obligations of citizenship by the people, a vulgarization of language and manners, that is eventually adopted by that dominant majority and spreads like a disease across the civilization, ultimately leading to its downfall. If you’re looking for examples, look at the tone of the current presidential election or the attitude our athlete role models are taking toward our national anthem.

The thing is, I’m seeing the same “lapse into truancy”, as Toynbee put it, in the Agile community. Why have the authors of the manifesto been largely absent at the agile conference over the last few years? Because the dominant majority has taken over.

Josh Kerievsky keynoted Agile 2016 and talked about Modern Agile. I’m a big fan of Josh and of Industrial Logic. In fact, in one of his slides he showed a picture of him giving a talk in 2007 and you can see the back of my head in the front row. And I’m totally on board with his message, but at the risk of sounding change-averse, I think it’s dangerous to our community to suggest rewriting the manifesto. It’s difficult to change the US Constitution for a reason! The door to a rewrite has been cracked open for some time, but it was blown open by his talk.

Since then I’ve begun to notice at other talks comments like, “I know Agile says big batches are bad, but let’s face it, sometimes the batch just has to be huge!” No, it doesn’t. And that kind of talk isn’t moving us forward as a community, especially when it’s said by a speaker at a national agile conference.

I was speaking at local meetup and afterward I was approached by someone who said, “it was really interesting to hear about the work you’re doing with Scrum teams. I’m an SPC and I work at the program and portfolio level in SAFe but I’ve never spent time on a team so this was really helpful.” If you fall into this category, I recommend spending six months with an Agile team. Otherwise you’re doing this community a disservice.

If Industrial Logic takes over the manifesto with its own text, are we beholden to them for updates? Do they then become the owners of Agile? We’re already beholden to Scaled Agile, Inc. for updates to the SAFe framework. CA purchased Rally, are we going to see the rise of Big Agile? Will we need to rely on lobbyists to get our special interests included in upcoming versions of their manifestos?

The average civilization lasts about 200 years. Our nation is still very strong, but there are signs of wear and tear. Some say that the next generation to enter the work force will be the first generation to expect a lower standard of living than their parents. Then again, they’ve been saying that for generations.

Does Agile have a shelf life? Our industry is too young to have any similar data, but we can look at RUP, Structured Programming, Six Sigma and Waterfall for clues. Agile has endured longer and demonstrated more success than its predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it’s impervious to an eventual downfall.

So what can we do to prevent it? I don’t have a cure, but I can tell you what I’m doing. I resigned my previous position so I could start up Sketch Development. Sketch is raising the standard of software development by building software with or for its customers. I’ve since found that visiting multiple companies for short periods of time on a repeated basis is more effective than spending a long period of time with one company on a full time basis. When I can step out periodically, I can avoid being sucked in to the culture machine that wants to redefine Agile so they can keep things the way they are.

I’m not suggesting you quit your job like I did. In fact, don’t! But I am suggesting that you find a new perspective. Test what you believe. Work on something else for a little while. Read the manifesto (as written!). Read the Scrum Guide. Heck, read Winston Royce’s work on developing the waterfall method. Try something out and get feedback on it. Learn something that forces you to question what you believe.

Maybe Toynbee is wrong and we’re not on a collision course with irrelevance. Or maybe we’re all wrong and Agile is doing us more harm than good in the long run. Only time will tell, but hopefully history is on our side on this one.

Tag(s): Uncategorized

John Krewson

John started Sketch in service to the mission of improving the ways people and teams work together. His past experiences as an agilist and professional actor are the primary sources of inspiration in leading this mission.

Other posts you might be interested in