Agile Manifesto – the Dark Side – Part 1 of 4

The Agile Manifesto has been around a while now, although looking at some Agile governed projects you’d think nobody had read it. However there are plenty of fallacies in the industry stemming from misapplication of the manifesto.

The Manifesto has statements that recommend focus on one side of four paradigms, however it does not state that the “other end” of the scale is not necessary or intrinsically bad; the term used is “ while there is value in X…” Too often that has been misinterpreted as “Agile doesn’t include X”.

I’d like to take each one in turn and discuss just how much of the Dark Side is appropriate. So starting at the top:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Just how much process and tooling is suitable?

This is a very hot topic on the forums currently as Agile becomes increasingly mainstream and more companies want to get the benefits. Like an onion, the outer layer of terminology, governance and processes are the most visible, and hence can be the easiest to adopt, like wearing a costume. That typically leads to a focus on processes and tools over individuals and interactions and is the single most common failing in Agile projects. However – assuming you have avoided this pitfall, what processes and tools are sensible? (I am only going to refer to those that can be used instead of human interactions as per the manifesto, so Development tools / frameworks, most of which are very beneficial in the right context, are not discussed)

It is fairly well agreed that for effective Agile delivery then you are going to need some form of continuous deployment and that is only sustainable with some manner of supporting automated test suite. Beyond that I’d argue that all tooling should be brought in deliberately due to a defined need, rather than an assumed starting tool kit.

So do we need one of those shiny Agile tracking tools, like JIRA or Version One etc? Instead of assuming you do, try assuming you don’t and then establish why you do, and then specifically what elements of the tool you really need, rather than adopting it blindly wholesale. Distributed teams are usually one of the main drivers – also one of the biggest challenges to team interactions.

Scrum, and even Kanban, come with their own processes, do we need them? I’d argue that Scrum without underlying XP practices is likely to be a lot less successful than the other way round but the original concept in Scrum, for example, three roles, four meetings is a sensible starting point.

Scrum (and Kanban) is a framework, so customising it to your needs is expected. Many teams will also have extra meetings, backlog refinement is a good case, or their own way to run retrospectives, or organise sprint planning. These are not to be shot down in flames with the cry of “Processes are Evil”, because in the majority of cases these are ways of working that the team has consciously adopted to simplify their activities, they might have even made them up. There is a significant difference between an externally defined process applied to a team and an internally customised one adopted from within. Rules (and by extension processes) enable action without full understanding, and consequently stifle innovation. Encourage teams to regularly challenge their processes to ensure that they still support activities rather than define them. If you are going to have a process, then make sure the team owns it, and therefore is free to change it.

Agreeing on some visual representation of the current state of work is nearly always a necessary step – so a task board or a burn down, some manner of backlog etc. It is often helpful to agree some mutual standards if working in a multi team environment – but each team should be free to customise their ways of working independently to a degree.

Processes are often the consequence of a lack of relationships, as the personal relationships between people become strained then processes are often brought in to compensate. The relationships can be strained either through failing trust or often due to scale. The growth pain organisations feel is usually a result of the shift from relationship and trust based operations to one of processes. With good relationships within your team and with people around them, then the need for processes will be reduced, so to identify where process is necessary I’d approach from the other side and ask where and why the relationships are poor?

Unless the whole organisation is Agile minded and relatively small, you are going to need to apply processes at the interfaces into poor relationships. That could be some structured status report into a nameless faceless (at least from the perspective of a lowly team developer) steering committee, or maybe an agreed set of steps into an inflexible established deployment team.

A consequence of the association between relationships and processes is that those team members that are not fully embedded in teams usually have more processes around their work than those in teams. So Architects might have review sessions, UX might need their own schedule of work and SLAs to deliver against etc. Again these aren’t intrinsically bad, but need to be agreed as a compensation for the lack of relationship rather than an opportunity to reinforce it.

In summary:

  • Assume no processes and then adopt them as and when the team needs them, not by default
  • Own your processes, rather than have them applied by central command and control
  • A basic framework to show work and to harmonise group time is usually necessary
  • Accept that for teams short on skills or experience, some guideline rules are going to be beneficial, but encourage the teams to challenge them frequently as their skills and experience improve
  • Consider all the relationships inside and outside the team. Wherever there are issues – either due to building trust or maintain good communications then consider adding a process
  • Processes compensate for lack of relationship, only adopt to fill the gap and resist going further as you may reinforce the lack of relationship

Next up – just how much Documentation is sensible in Agile delivery….

Comments welcome



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