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  • Jay Dean

Agile in name only?

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Please pardon a brief rant after another frustrating meeting.

Some years ago I worked with a very small team creating enterprise-scale custom software for some very large clients. We built it fast, tightly wrapped around the user needs (it's a "custom" solution, so the user is right there with you) . About that time, a group of application development deep-thinkers penned something called “The Agile Manifesto” and started a movement. They took a vaguely defined approach and gave it definition and structure. The software world jumped on it.

Having the structure and definition of the Agile methodology, with clever names and terminology, makes the system memorable and, more importantly, “teachable”. The methodology also works, or "can work", very well indeed, in the right context and with practitioners who keep proper perspective. At times, however, teams using Agile can become obsessed with the mechanics of the process, almost treating the methodology as a fetish.

With daily stand-ups, quick sprints, and tight, focused deliverables, there are so very many opportunities to "check off the boxes". Scrum teams like to check those boxes, the project managers love to check the boxes, and management is fixated on backlog items checked as "complete". It feels like progress, and indeed it is progress, but is it "agile"?

I have seen, and experienced, teams that are running through their backlog llike they are "on rails". They push forward through sprints like a subway that makes all the stops. Again, there's a lot of progress, but certainly no agility. The close of each sprint is a time to hurry into the next, rather than revisit assumptions, look at the prioritization and most importantly, think about the user and check that your user stories are still an accurate reflection of user desires. (Still working with user stories written weeks, perhaps months, before the product was in the hands of actual users? You have real users now, time to learn from them) Are you adjusting, shifting direction, and getting right on target, or running on those rails into the next interation.

In fairness, many teams do a fine job staying truly "agile", but most will, at times, get into a groove, or onto those "rails" (to continue the subway analogy), and, thrilled with the appearance of progress, run through several stations without checking on where they are headed. Shifts in direction, reprioritation and redefinition makes people nervous, especially management, but that's a prime benefit of the Agile methodology. Fight for it!

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