Dear Agile, It’s Time to Grow Up


Dear Agile. I’ve been with you a long time. Heck, I was there back in the 80s and 90s, even before you were born. Remember Fast Cycle Time? RAD? Or any of the other systems that emphasized rapid development in close association with the users? Remember all the fun we had before you had a name, when we were doing weekly code drops of tested code? Customers loved us. Developers were happy. It was a good thing. We were all happy then.

And it was even good after you were born. We had a whole bunch of things we could drop into the Agile bucket. There was eXtreme Programming. There was Agile Data modeling. There was even an Agile Unified Process. Seemed like the more we thought about it, the more other things besides development also needed to be Agile. Marketing, Sales, Startups, Program Management. The Agile manifesto was such a good set of values that wherever we applied them, we found improvement.

And that’s the problem.

Agile, it’s time to grow up. When you were born, it was easy to believe in developers as sitting in some small room, customer by their side, banging out great solutions. But that was then, that was your childhood. Now that you’ve gotten older, you have to be aware that most of the time these developers exist as part of some bigger ecosystem: a cross-functional team to develop a new product line, a team of vendors bidding on a government project, or a lean startup team practicing customer development.

It’s not just software any more, if it ever was. Now we’re expecting you to play in the bigger world with a broader view of how developers actually are employed. You have to grow up.

I know what you’re thinking: why can’t everybody just be like Spotify? One big company with a bunch of kick-ass Agile teams in it? Why can’t we just get paid, without having to think about where the money comes from? If the company/customer/client wants us to work in a large group of developers, why can’t we just tell them no? Why should we do estimates? Why do we have to add in all this other stuff anyway? Why can’t it just be the way it used to be, with you and your pair-programming buddy writing killer software for one guy you had to make happy?

I don’t blame you. Growing up is tough. Nobody wants to do it. It’s tough to look out on the world and realize that there are so many other important things besides just the things you’ve been used to. It’s tough realizing so many other people want part of your time, and you have duties and responsibilities in life that might not be so much fun.

I understand this.

But the world needs you. You see, the values you emphasized and the techniques that resulted from them are applicable across a lot more than just software. The world is becoming digital, and the digital world needs Agile to help guide it.

Sure, the world outside the team room has a lot of dysfunctional behavior. There’s management principles that are outdated, there are ideas and models that are harmful to the people who hold them. Many companies are being run in a way that actively destroys morale. Aside from product and intellectual property development, which was our old homestead, there’s also manufacturing and service work. Those activities play by their own rules, and although our value preferences stay the same, the practices and techniques change. That can be very confusing to you, I know. I’ve seen you struggle with trying to apply product development ideas to services and manufacturing. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it hurts.

But I want you to know, I believe in you. I’ve seen you overcome big odds, and the people using Agile principles today are some of the smartest people in the world.

You’re going to do fine. But enough with the whining and insisting on living in a tiny piece of the world. It’s time to grow up.

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April 21, 2014

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