You Can't Buy Agile

There was a recent “see, it didn’t work!” letter released by the president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, titled “The Real Story About Lean”. It’s released in the wake of a handful of articles and comments from local government officials on how we’ve paid a consultant $39 million dollars to come tell us how to be lean in our health care system. This painfully reminds me of the multitude of software companies who have heard about lean / agile / etc. from some article, thought it was a good idea, and then paid a consultant to come in and tell them how to to it. A significant amount of those end in failure.

In a spooky coincidence, some of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto have recently come out and said that Agile in its original sense has died, due to a large part these agile consultants trying to peddle their wares to aforementioned companies. A great quote from “Agile Is Dead, Love Live Agility” by Dave Thomas, one of the original 17 authors of the manifesto:

Having conferences about agility is not too far removed from having conferences about ballet dancing, and forming an industry group around the four values always struck me as creating a trade union for people who breathe.

Personal Practices

You see, the main tenants of agile software development (of which lean could be argued to be a subset), revolve around personal practices (as stated by Dave in a Dr Dobbs interview). They are things you need to believe in at a personal level, not something that a consultant can tell and/or sell you. Part of the reason so many of us in the software industry bought into agile is because we already had those values, or could see a benefit in them. It’s not because a glorified Project Management Professional got their Scrum Master certificate and told us how to do it, it’s because there were things wrong in parts of our industry, and by focusing on these values we could address those issues.

Successful agile teams that I’ve seen consist of people who share common values – they don’t even have to be the Agile Manifesto values, but a common ground that the entire team can use to move forward on a project. You can imagine how much more powerful this can be when teams come to this common purpose on their own, as opposed to having someone come in and tell them what their values should be. The consultant who sells agile tools and agile methodologies is as effective as the salesperson with a cart full of snake oil; it seems like the best thing in the world at the time, but once the salesperson packs up and leaves you’re going to be left with a bottle of water you won’t use because you don’t believe in it.

Try talking to each other?

Agile is meant to be a communicative, iterative process in which the entire team (managers, workers, and customers alike) are involved. You don’t kick down the door and replace all your processes overnight “because we’re agile now”, you work as a team to identify areas of improvement, work as a team to address those issues in small, manageable chunks, and repeat indefinitely. The best a consultant can do in this process is possibly suggest some techniques you may not be aware of, but ultimately its up to you and your team to adopt things that will work for you. If your team doesn’t buy into it, they’re just going to do what they’re told for two weeks, and then complain that it didn’t work and declare “agile / lean is terrible”.

Some of the techniques our team uses include breaking work into iterations, bi-weekly retrospectives where we identify issues and provide solutions, morning scrum meetings to review the day’s workload, using a kanban board to organize and visualize our workload, pair programming, automated tests, and others. Each one of those techniques were introduced by a team member, tried out for a few weeks, and discussed as a team afterwards – none of them were forced upon us by a 3rd party, and there have been lots of things we’ve tried and abandoned because we didn’t feel they provided value to the team.

Culture of Agile

Even within our company each team has a different approach to software development which has been formed by each team on their own based on their team size, their projects, and their own individual needs. As a company we didn’t say “hey, team A does agile really well, you all need to do what they do”, we instead give each team the trust and resources needed to come to their own conclusions about how best to perform their own jobs. Through this, our company has created a culture where personal contribution and team cohesiveness are highly valued, and we all benefit as a result through intangible concepts like “job satisfaction” and “self worth”.

This agile culture is well defined by the “Agile Holocracy” article written by Allen Holub. The idea of a Holocracy is one of the best descriptions of a flat-structred organization I’ve read in awhile; every team and individual in the organization is a “whole”, and functions more like a peer-to-peer network rather than a traditional hierarchy. Each member is capable of performing their function within the organization, and rely on communication with their teammates and other teams to steer the company in the direction it needs to go. Individuals are valued as contributing members in this organization, rather than a cog in the machine trying to get to the next rung of the ladder.

It’s not about waste, it’s about improvement

When it comes to lean and SUN’s interpretation of it (or at least what they’ve been sold), it seems as though they’re focused on the one waste reduction component of an entire system. While waste is a keyword often used in the description of lean, it really comes down to preserving value with less work. The idea is that you provide an equal or better quality product, while identifying and addressing areas of waste in an incremental process. In fact, the steps to achieve lean consist of “design a simple system”, “identify areas that can be improved”, “continuously improve”.

I’ve read about so many companies and teams that have fallen prey to the Agile sales pitch that it’s no wonder that it’s getting a bad name. There’s a big push to kill the term altogether mostly because of the marketing angle it has taken. When it comes down to it, agile really means nothing more than working as a group to produce the best you can. Every member of your team is capable of identifying wasteful processes in their day-to-day jobs, and I can guarantee they have more than a few ideas on how to address those issues. You don’t need to pay someone $39 million to tell you that.