Agile in 2016: Party out of Bounds

Posted January 27, 2016 in Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence Cutter Business Technology Journal


For Agilists, 2016 will be a celebratory year. Not only has Agile enjoyed mainstream status for several years now, its success has allowed Agile to become a laboratory for other innovations, from new techniques for ­customer insights to delivery of software as fast as you can produce it.

When you join a party where everyone is having the best time imaginable, the last thing on your mind is how annoyed the people next door are, and how happy the people paying for it are. Those are two major considerations for Agile in 2016, which will appear as the not-too-subtle subtext for several ongoing developments.


Soon after you walk into one of these Agile gatherings (like, say, the yearly Agile Alliance or Agile Roots conferences), you’ll find yourself in interesting conversations about a broad range of topics. DevOps, scaled Agile, UX and Agile, interpersonal dynamics among team members, story mapping, serious games, better estimation, no estimation, Kanban, mob programming, automated testing, exploratory testing, technical debt, Cynefin, organizational models, continuous delivery, measurement, metrics, Agile BI.... And that’s just a small sampling of a long, long list of topics that Agilists are discussing. They feel passionately about these ­topics, too, so these conversations are rarely dull.

This explosion of innovation means that there are a ­significant number of people who are being Agile, not just doing Agile. The core Agile ethic of continuous improvement drives teams to keep hammering at ­barriers to the faster, more reliable delivery of greater software value. What’s the point of doing a two-week sprint if it takes weeks to push production-ready code into production? Can we get better insights into what customers really want? How do we reduce the burden of technical debt?

Agilists have looked within computer science for some solutions and outside that domain for others. It’s no surprise that some of the best Agilists are familiar with organizational sociology, motivational psychology, ­statistical analysis, and other topics that their CS ­professors did not teach them.


The first-generation Agile practices and principles focused on the team. People outside the team had to make changes to accommodate the Agile team. For example, customers had to agree to participate in a demo every couple of weeks. The data center had to accommodate a faster rate of releases.

Next-generation Agile (aka Modern Agile, or Agile Plus) incorporates new techniques that have a much greater impact on the rest of the software value stream, beyond the team. Continuous delivery puts even greater stress on the relationship between development teams and operations professionals. Agile teams want to invite UX designers into the fold, but the price tag is abandoning UX approaches that don’t mesh with the sprint-driven cadence of work. Crowdsourcing can give corporate lawyers and HR managers conniptions.

The more deeply rooted Agile is, the more leverage Agilists have to make these requests of people outside the team. To date, it is still hard to tell exactly how mainstream Agile really is. The available statistics on Agile adoption, from sources like the Dr. Dobb’s and VersionOne surveys, certainly indicate that Agile has spread into many, if not most, organizations that do software development. Within these organizations, Agile teams are a strong minority, not yet a majority. That gives Agile teams staying power, to be sure, and some organizational clout for implementing the next generation of Agile practices.

However, even widespread adoption of Agile within anorganization does not make it impregnable. Anyone who has been part of the Agile community has heard sad stories about very successful Agile experiments that met tragic fates from reorganizations, backlash from other groups, executive indifference, and other familiar “anti-patterns.” If, in some organizations, even highly successful teams can’t always defend the use of Agile methods within their own ranks, what are the odds of these teams making demands of other groups?

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Agile teams would be on much firmer ground if theobjectives for Agile were clearer. Unfortunately, strategic incoherence about Agile is a common malady, including in places where you might think Agile should be a major strategic asset.

During engagements with clients across the adoption spectrum, from first-timers to veterans, I use some lightweight exercises to assess alignment over the goals for Agile. How do people across the organization, from top to bottom, from within teams and from the rest of the value stream, describe the contribution that Agile makes to the organization’s larger objectives? Among these benefits (quality, customer satisfaction, time to market, etc.), which is primary?

Except in rare cases, the answers usually vary widely, even in organizations where Agile is deeply rooted and widespread. Where there is no clear goal for Agile, it should be no surprise that when Agilists make greater demands from a larger number of people, they meet resistance.

We often see this “static” complicate discussions about Agile frameworks (among many other topics), because of the organizational changes they require. Military institutions organize for the wars they plan to fight. Forexample, in the 2000s the US Army went through a painful evolution to go from being an institution built tofight the Soviets in Central Europe to one that could fight the Taliban effectively in Afghanistan.

In a similar fashion, software innovators build organizations to win their battles. Are we trying to expand into new markets? Create outstanding digital experiences that keep our existing customers happy? Increase our organizational agility in a rapidly changing marketplace? Not only will the “Agile Plus” practices we adopt differ, based on which objective we choose, but we will structure the software value stream differently, too.

In 2016, therefore, Agilists will have to pause to ask, “Why are we doing Agile in the first place?” There maynot be a clear answer — or there may be conflicting answers, depending on whom you ask. The success ofefforts to implement Agile frameworks, DevOps, or many other Agile Plus approaches will depend on finding better answers to fundamental strategic questions.

About The Author
Tom Grant
Tom Grant is the former Practice Director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product Management & Software Engineering Excellence practice. Dr. Grant's expertise in software development and delivery with a particular focus on Agile, Lean, application lifecycle management (ALM), product management, serious games, collaboration, innovation, and requirements.  Most recently, Dr. Grant was a Senior Analyst at Forrester Research. Previously, he served… Read More