What does “Not Agile” look like?

Last week, the XtC London group met up with the SPA2009 attendees. Joseph Perline ran a panel session with Tim Mackinnon, Rachel Davies and others in which they discussed the weakening of the Agile brand.

One of the most interesting comments was Tim’s assertion that Agile “fails the purchase test”. That is; if someone won’t buy the opposite of what you’re selling, then the brand of what you’re selling has no value. In Agile terms, if no team will claim to be “not Agile” then the word “Agile” itself no longer has any value.

How many teams nowadays will actively claim to still be running Waterfall, for any flavour of Waterfall? Of course not. We’re all “Agile”, aren’t we?

At an Agile 2008 keynote, Uncle Bob asked everyone who was on an Agile project to raise their hands, then put them down if they failed any of certain criteria: no unit tests, no acceptance tests, iterations of more than two weeks, no showcases to the business, etc. By the end, hardly anyone had their hands up.

So, given that those of us who are on Agile projects are often less than perfectly Agile, how do you decide whether you’re actually in that space, or are merely one of the teams weakening the brand?

Do you know what “not Agile” looks like? And are you sure it doesn’t look a bit like you?

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4 Responses to What does “Not Agile” look like?

  1. James Bowman says:

    Interesting idea. Perhaps one could even take this principle a step further and question whether it is helpful to categorise or label projects as Agile at all. The very act of applying the label implies a black and white picture where projects are either agile or they are something else entirely. Perhaps it would be more useful to imagine a continuum or scale of agility. This picture also helps enforce the idea of continuous improvement where rather than classifying themselves as Agile, or not-Agile, projects simply strive to be more Agile.

  2. liz says:

    The Agile community still has a strong flavour to it based around a common set of beliefs and values – insatiable curiosity, a strong desire to be of worth to the world, a sense of wonder, respect for one’s peers and trust in the team’s ability to deliver. If anything is “Agile”, I’d like to apply the label to those beliefs and values, rather than any project or team in particular. The XP values – communication, courage, respect, simplicity, feedback – are the ones I normally use for measuring a team when coaching, and they’re also pretty good candidates. Any actual practices seem hollow without these beliefs.

    Is it helpful to apply the “Not-Agile” label? It depends. I’ve seen a few teams call themselves “Agile”; what I want to do to them is give them 10 labels marked “Ship To Not-Agile” and ask them what they would put them on if they were going to get rid of some of the junk.

    Might have to print out some of those.

  3. Bob Hartman says:

    I don’t think “not agile” only means waterfall. Many teams would say something like “we’re agile but…” To me that is not agile and I think the team would agree. From my experience it seems “we’re agile but…” describes the majority of agile teams. Can they still be successful? Of course. Will the knock people’s socks off with how successful they are? Probably not. If what I describe is true, then selling “agile” has value. In fact it is significant value if the change from mediocre to great can actually occur.

  4. liz says:

    Thanks Bob, those are great points. I agree that “not agile” doesn’t only mean waterfall – looks like I picked on the easy target again.

    I like “We’re agile but…” in a team. To me, that means they’re trying things out, looking to improve, introspecting or retrospecting on how they’re doing, and have the trust and support of the management. There’s a level of safety in “We’re agile but…” which I enjoy seeing. I think this describes the majority of teams in the agile community, and the majority of them have got the hard stuff – the underlying values – down already.

    I also see, or hear, of many teams out there who aren’t really as connected. They haven’t joined in the community. Without any input from others, it’s easy for those teams to say, “We’re agile”. No but. That’s why I’ve tagged this post with “breaking models” à la Systems Thinking, and challenged people to look again at themselves (as a team); because without actively going out and seeking that feedback, the model that “this is what Agile looks like” can never be broken, and the change from mediocre to great – or even broken to mediocre – can never occur.

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