The State of Agile- Tobias Mayer

A Beautiful Stepping Stone

I was asked by Agile Scout to write an article for the State of Agile series. This is my response.

At the end of September I attended the Scrum Beyond Software event in Phoenix, at the wonderful Gangplank facility. This was both the last event I organized while working for the Scrum Alliance, and (to my knowledge) the first full Open Space event set up to explore this topic.

The event was interesting for many reasons, one being that the attendees came from many different backgrounds and identified with different Agile communities, including Scrum, Kanban, XP, Lean or just simply non-denominational Agile. What emerged from this mix of minds and ideas, free from the software development constraint was the truth of similarities over differences. We shared a common vision. For me, it was a realization that too often the buzzwords become prisons — a way to establish a territory, or carve out a market niche, a way to stand still. And I am as guilty as many of building barriers to collaboration across the different splinter movements.

As I reflected on that learning moment over the following weeks, ideas that had been kicking around in my mind for some time became clear. I once thought I knew what Scrum was, but over the past year or two –especially the recent six months– it has become clear to me that the Scrum Alliance and scrum.org understanding of Scrum is greatly different to mine. Given that these organizations between them effectively own Scrum, it is sensible for me to admit that what I do, what I teach isn’t Scrum. It is something else.

I have always found the term “Agile” a little ambiguous. To me it is little more than a manifesto and an annual USA conference. There is a set of principles which offer guidance on software development, but describes no concrete application. XP, Scrum, Kanban etc. offer actual practices. Almost every software company now claims to be “Agile.” The term has grown like a cancer into massive overuse, and thus into meaningless jargon. And of course, by the nature of the manifesto language, Agile itself is rooted in software development. I am interested in exploring and transforming whole organizations, even those that don’t build software at all. Agile is a vaguely useful term, covering a multitude of ideas and practices.

Kanban, the process I always saw as “watered down Scrum” is emerging as a useful way of working when addressing problems in certain areas of an organization, in fact I’ve recently been applying some Kanban concepts in non-project focused work to great effect, e.g. the practice of continuous flow over upfront commitment, and the decoupling of review and retrospective, allowing each to find its own cadence within the given context. The core Kanban practices of visual management and minimized WIP are essential techniques in any context to help create the mindset we are seeking.

Some of the ideas from the Lean movement are useful, but it’s application in the software world seems to mostly be on process improvement and streamlining, with little focus on relationships and collaboration. XP and Software Craftsmanship offer an excellent mindset for building software, but again they are rooted in one small part of the knowledge industry. Highly recommended, but not really transferable to other domains. Many of the Agile methods being used are useful in particular contexts. None is appropriate everywhere.

The important thing to remember is that there is so much more to draw on than the Agile family of methods. There is Improv, Artful Making, CAS, Games Theory, Integral and Coactive Coaching, NLP, Dan Pink’s Motivation 3.0, the work of Ricardo Semler, Seth Godin, <add your favorite writer>, the inspirational ideas from so many TED Talks, and much more.  The Agile community, the Agile-rooted ideas are a very small part of a whole movement taking place in the world of knowledge work. We are marching, or perhaps more accurately slipping and sliding towards a new paradigm. Agile is part of a ripple that when combined with other ideas and practices will collectively become a tidal wave of change. I want to get out of the shallows, the safety, and (let’s be honest) the growing stagnation of the Agile community, and ride that wave of change.

One or two of us at the Phoenix event committed to trying to get by without using the terms Agile, Scrum, Kanban, etc. in our writings. Perhaps this article will be the last time I dwell on those terms (they may crop up in passing). For one, it would be lovely to describe what I do in terms that doesn’t cause people to look at me in confusion and say “what does that mean?” I’d like to explore, not explain. I have a desire to seek simplicity of language, as I believe it will lead to simplicity of solution. Lean is an example of a term that sounds like what it does. Software Craftsmanship is another.

My journey forward is one of discovering, embracing, collecting, sifting, sharing, shaping, crafting, and exchanging gifts with fellow travelers.

So how do I see Agile? I see it as one stepping stone (a particularly beautiful one) on a great journey towards a business world that is more caring, loving, respectful and altogether more joyous. Agile will meld into the ideas of many other movements, and we’ll all move forward towards the greater goal, seeking similarities and finding ways to collaborate, innovate and reconceive the way we work.

—-

Tobias Mayer is an organizational change agent, coach and trainer based in Palo Alto, CA with frequent trips to his home town of London for work and pleasure. Every few years he likes to reinvent himself.

You can find Tobias Mayer at @tobiasmayer and blogging on http://agileanarchy.wordpress.com/.

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23 Responses to “The State of Agile- Tobias Mayer”

  1. Wayne
    October 26, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    Hey Tobias,

    I am reminded of this line from the 1999 film Dogma; more eloquent than I would ever be:

    ————-

    Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?

    Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and that limits growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.

    ————-

    Sound familiar? If we just embraced everything as an idea, surely there would be less friction and more willingness to change?

    “We tried the time-boxed iteration idea but the results weren’t great.”

    “Why not try the zero length iteration idea and see if that helps your productivity? Have some fun with it, let me know how you get on. We can always try another idea if it doesn’t pan out”

    Sigh.

    • ScoutMaster
      October 26, 2010 at 10:35 am #

      Great points. We love Dogma! Especially Alanis being God :P

      • Wayne
        October 26, 2010 at 10:44 am #

        My new concept, IDD (Idea Driven Development). I could package that up and make a few quid, do the keynote speaker circuit etc.

        Yeah that film rules! At the end when Jay launches into his expletive-ridden diatribe to Alanis was fantastic…

        • Derek Huether
          October 26, 2010 at 11:40 am #

          I like Wayne’s idea of IDD. I personally use ADD. I take an idea, convert it to an action…..

          Hey, look!
          A butterfly!

    • Phil Ruse
      October 26, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

      Woah, that’s a terrific quote and it’s one of those movies my brother left behind on DVD. I know what I’ll be watching tonight!

    • Sarah Jones
      November 19, 2010 at 6:21 am #

      Love it! Kevin Smith meets agile.

      • ScoutMaster
        November 19, 2010 at 8:30 am #

        Are we talking about the Jay and Silent Bob guy? Ha!

  2. Tobias Fors
    October 26, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Tobias, thanks for the post. I like your idea of trying to get by without using the buzzwords. I have the same desire. To me, it’s not just about being understood, but about making sure I understand what I myself think. If I cannot explain what I do in plain language, how then can I know what I really know?

    I also think that agile and Scrum are are, relatively, small phenomena riding on top of a much larger change. Russell Ackoff described this as a transition from a mechanical view of the world to a systemic view of the world.

    Coincidentally, Ackoff was also a master of explaining complex things using simple language. Maybe this is why he isn’t more widely read: he didn’t use enough buzzwords.

  3. Phil Ruse
    October 26, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    After reading of the many uses/miss-uses of the term “Agile” I’m interested to find out what use my own company has made of it in their presentation tomorrow :)

    • ScoutMaster
      October 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

      Interesting thoughts. Time to inspect and adapt!

  4. Baere
    October 27, 2010 at 3:51 am #

    That’s the spirit, break out of IT and look around!
    I made the opposite movement. For 8 year we tried within our company to make the cultural transition from an entrepreneurial company (The Big Boss Decides Everything) towards an adhocracy (we collaborate & what counts is result not effort). We used Week-ends, specialized trainings, workshops and we even had a kind of scrum of scrums at company level to make it happen. About three years ago I learned about Agile/scrum… and it was nice to see that the spirit of adhocracy and agile are the same. Now I use scrum as a practical framework to make companies more adhocratic as it works faster than the method we used.
    (from http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/109061):
    “Robert H. Waterman, Jr. defined adhocracy as “any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.” [http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/backlist/031084.htm] For Henry Mintzberg, an adhocracy is a complex and dynamic organizational form. [http://www.12manage.com/methods_mintzberg_configurations.html Mintzberg’s Organizational Configurations] ] It is different from bureaucracy; like Toffler, Mintzberg considers bureaucracy a thing of the past, and adhocracy one of the future. When done well, adhocracy can be very good at problem solving and innovations and thrives in a changing environment. It requires sophisticated and often automated technical systems to develop and thrive. “
    Adhocracy was already described in 1970 by Toffler and Mintzberg wrote in 1979 his book “The Structuring of Organizations: A Synthesis of the Research” where he describes in academic terms.
    A nice example of this kind of company is Oticon, the spaghetti organization. It’s a large producer of hearing aids and it made the complete transformation in 1990. The CEO started the transformation with a paper called: “Think the unthinkable”. He had a light set of basic rules and the rest was left over to the people. You can Google for it of check http://www.entrepreneur.com/tradejournals/article/97731467.html
    Have fun!

    • ScoutMaster
      October 27, 2010 at 9:43 am #

      Wow very interesting stuff here. Definitely need to spend some time looking at these articles! Thanks!

  5. Michael
    October 27, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    Very nice article! I personally is paying much attention to many things that Tobias mentioned in the list like Motivation 3.0 (Drive), Tribes, Social Networks, etc. this year. There is a feeling that current Agile is quite narrow to build a truly successful company. We started with XP several years ago, now we are diving deeper into business/team/strategy/vision/tribe development. That is the key.

  6. Bachan Anand
    November 14, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

    Tobias,
    Great article,just for the record want to say that my thoughts maybe too much inline with what you have written. I was glad to be part of the Scrum Beyond Software event in Phoenix and I appreciate you putting it together.
    I left phoenix with two thoughts beyond names( I think you are the one who mentioned it for the first time ) and action, it is time to do something with what we know instead of waiting to find the next software company to do Scrum adoption.

    I am hoping for and creating more humane work places building on the experiences I had and the concept you taught me and other knowledge I absorbed along the path , I call it WORK is GOOD.

    I am looking forward reading more of your articles.

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