Sunday, October 19, 2014

SPaMCast Question #9: what’s wrong with trying to turn agile into a “silver bullet”?

Jeff, we have historically as an industry always thought that there was a silver bullet, and there never really has been. Is this the way we’re approaching agile? Is “going agile” just another reflection of that silver bullet thinking?

[NOTE: Over the past several weeks, the CMMI Appraiser has been sharing excerpts from a recent conversation with Tom Cagley on SPaMCast about whether agile is resilient – i.e., whether it will be able to spring back into shape after being bound or compressed by the pressures of development and support – and how frameworks like the CMMI can be used to make agile more resilient. Listen to the full interview at SPaMCast 296.]

Tom, yes, I think it is. It’s pretty clear when a self-described agile organization is not really agile, but thinks they can use “going agile” as a silver bullet. You see them embracing agile techniques with no attempt to connect those techniques to agile values or agile methods, and they end up shooting themselves in the foot. That’s not where they were hoping the silver bullet would go!

You know, Tom, very few organizations that SAY they are agile that actually ARE agile. Instead, all they are doing is exercising various agile techniques. These companies will say to me, “Yeah, we’re an agile organization. We do a Daily Standup.” I say, “OK, that's great that you do a Daily Standup. I’m a big fan of that technique. Tell me what else you do.” And they’ll kind of look around, scratching their heads. They say, “Well, we, uh, we have sticky notes.” And I say, “OK.” Sticky notes is a good tool. What else are you doing?”

Before long, it becomes clear to me that all they're doing is mirroring the adoption cycle by focusing on doing Daily Standups, sticky notes, and all this low-level stuff. There's nothing wrong with any of it. As a matter fact, even if you are a Waterfall shop, these are great techniques to use. But here’s the rub: agile is not agile when the techniques are disconnected from the methods and the values. These are the three tiers of agile resiliency – values, methods and techniques. They all have to be present, and they have to be traceable, for an organization to be truly agile.

Again, agile techniques are fantastic. I always tell companies they should use whatever techniques make the most sense for their business.  But they have to be tied to some framework or method.

In the case of the agile community, Scrum is the most common method. Most organizations are using a mix of Scrum and Extreme Programming techniques, but many of them aren't running Scrum projects. Instead, they say things like, “Yeah, we’re using Scrum. But our project manager manages us using the Microsoft Project work plan. So we plan everything out in advance. We have a big plan and sort of a traditional approach to that, because that's what our management wants to see.”

Umm …

Then you look to the highest level of the organization, the management level or the executive level, and agile values are nowhere to be found. They think they've got the silver bullet approach. They say, “We’re agile. We’re doing agile. We’re going agile.” But what they're really doing is adopting an untraceable set of agile techniques and shooting themselves in the foot. There really isn't a future for that. Unless you want to spend the rest of your career limping around with a hole in your shoe!

Like this blog? Forward to your nearest engineering or software exec!

Jeff Dalton is a Certified SCAMPI Lead Appraiser, Certified CMMI Instructor, author and consultant with years of real-world experience with the CMMI in all types of organizations. Jeff has taught thousands of students in CMMI trainings and has received an aggregate satisfaction score of 4.97 out of 5 from his students.

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