Cutting-Edge Agile — Opening Statement

Posted April 22, 2019 | Leadership | Amplify
In this issue:


We are now in the “post-Agile” age.

Post-something means that we are in an in-between period, where one something has been incorporated into our culture and the next something has not yet fully formed to the point of naming. The period of horseless carriages preceded the age of cars; indeed, even “automobile” is an in-between word, indicating only that a vehicle moves itself.

We have not yet noted and named whatever happens after fully absorbing Agile. What we can see is that Agile development has crossed the chasm from innovators to the early majority, moved from the early majority to the late majority, and is starting to pull on the laggards.

This means that the explorers and innovators have moved on. They are now exploring “given that, what’s next?” The early majority have incorporated the Agile approach into their work habits and are asking, “What do I do with this?”

Not everyone is fully Agile, nor will everyone adopt Agile fully. The Agile organization runs on decentralized decision making and is socially flat, team-oriented, and largely consensus-based. Some cultures and organi­zations are fundamentally hierarchical, individual- and status-oriented. These groups will have trouble incor­por­ating Agile methods for years to come and may never get there.

Nonetheless, Agile, valuing “individuals and interactions, working product (fast feedback in general), customer collaboration, and responding to change,” is by now deeply embedded in many organizations and many people. Much of today’s workforce, basically anyone under the age of 38, was in school or university in 2001, the year of the Agile Manifesto. They have never known any other way of working than the Agile way; it is embedded in their cellular structure and in the cellular structure of some of their organizations.

To look at the “cutting edge,” then, is to look at the edges of these groups:

  • Outside of software, where and how are people applying Agile?

  • What are those applying Agile to conservative organizations encountering and how do they expand it to fit?

  • What do those who have been doing Agile for a long time think about its evolution and acceptance?

  • What are those who are looking ahead looking at?

As one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, I see three big movements:

  1. The demand for faster feedback. Modern product designers are saying, “Scrum is too slow. I can’t wait two weeks to get feedback on this idea, I want it tonight or tomorrow so that I can make course corrections now.” This breaks the traditional Agile organization, which can’t see how to get feedback that quickly.

  2. The use of Agile values outside of product design. We are now seeing Agile values surface in managing restaurants, schools, churches, political initiatives, and personal lives. The Agile concepts — working collaboratively, deploying probes early with rapid feedback, and learning — are generally applicable and being applied in every setting imaginable.

  3. Simplification. While large organizations are still looking for mass training, certifications, and frameworks that relieve them of the burden of engaging their people socially and emotionally, the experienced Agile practitioners have gone back to the simplicity of the manifesto and are working to rebuild afresh, from the values. Eschewing certifications and fixed rules, they are engaging organizations in dialogue, letting local situations and expertise create optimizations of the Agile concepts to best fit each situation.

In my own work over the last five years, I have selected some core ideas to support these three movements:

  • Ideas and decisions as the atomic building blocks of organizational work

  • Collaboration and early delivery as ways to improve decisions

  • A culture of listening

In the broadest sense, any initiative serves to change the world in some way. That is true whether the initiative is product deployment with a profit motive, or a sociopolitical initiative to have people recycle more or improve schooling. In any initiative, one person passes ideas and decisions along to another person, who builds on them. What finally gets put into the world is the sum of all these decisions.

What we are looking for is a better way to work in the world of ideas and decisions; generating better ideas, culling them, evolving them, and building on them. By talking about ideas and decisions, we remove the baggage that has accrued around Agile as being about product development and allow it to help any organi­zation with an initiative of any sort. We see why we are using the Agile approach. We move away from trying to convince people to “go agile” by helping them understand the benefits: if we work this way, we will steer to our desired end goal more quickly, more cheaply, and more effectively.

Since we know what we are working on — decisions — we can see why there is so much focus on collaboration and early, partial deliveries. Collaboration allows us to find better ideas to start from and to improve them the fastest way possible, through conversation. Rapid deployment of partial solutions allows us to see how our ideas fit the world at large and make course corrections quickly, before putting more work into them. These probes and early deliveries allow us to improve our “directional decisions.” Reflecting, as a dedicated activity, provides the team a moment to look at the situation with a quiet mind and make better decisions for how to go forward.

This brings us to the culture of listening, a recent evolution of the Agile culture. The standard process-change mechanism is for someone to tell others what their new roles and processes are. Executives have been known to say to consultants, “Tell me what I should tell my subordinates and bosses.” This is the basis for the implementation of SAFe and other large frameworks.

However, in telling people how to work, the organization misses the opportunity to tap into the knowledge of the workers. More effective is to dialogue across specialties. Each person contributes their expertise, so that insights emerge from all sides of the discussion. The result is a more effective process, with greater buy-in at every level.

An increasing number of executives know this, and resist being told what to do. They want their advisors to dialogue with them, so they can in turn dialogue with their workers to arrive at the best ideas going forward.

The Heart of Agile community1 is making “culture of listening” its social substrate. It has been a pleasant experience to find people around the world in all sorts of organizations already oriented to listening generously and inclined more to dialog than to tell. I am finding senior executives in even the most traditional organizations happy to participate in this new culture.

The Selection Process

The above topics are some you will find in this issue of Cutter Business Technology Journal. In looking for the outstanding articles you will read here, we began with a call for papers on Twitter, Facebook, and through the usual Cutter Consortium channels. A record 51 proposals came back!

I am happy to report on the demographics of the ­pro­posals. Of the 51 proposals submitted, 19 were from women, 27 from men, and five mixed (men and women); 20 were from inside the US, 29 were from outside, and two were mixed (one author inside the US and one outside). Of the seven papers selected, two are authored by women, two by men, and three mixed; two are written by authors from the US, four from outside the US, and one is mixed.

It was not my intention to select for a particular distribution of any sort; it was my intention to get proposals from as wide a range of authors as possible and then select the best for you to read. I am happy that the final selection, besides being the best, also reflects global and gender diversity.

Choosing only seven papers out of those 51 was diffi­cult. I was looking not only for the key topics described above, but also for stories: stories of organizational adoption of Agile, stories of how Agile has broadened far beyond software development, stories of incorporating Agile into larger and more general frameworks, and stories of ultra-rapid feedback.

Those I found, but I was surprised myself by some of these stories. Three of the papers you will read that give me additional pleasure to share include a story of politics in Zimbabwe, of entrepreneurship in Pakistan, and that of running “agile classrooms” in several countries.

In This Issue

Andy Hunt and I were part of the group that wrote the Agile Manifesto, and Joshua Kerievsky was practicing Industrial XP at the time. We, as foundational members of the Agile movement, are among those who feel that Agile has become overly complicated over the years, and we are now working to simplify things; to make sure the core ideas work in all fields, not just software. As we describe in the first article of the issue, it is time to reboot Agile.

In the second article, Matthew Gelbwaks describes the use of Agile techniques in handling the question of succession of power at the end of Robert Mugabe’s reign in Zimbabwe. I find this article fascinating and hope you will, too.

The Agile Manifesto and its obvious extensions don’t address issues needed at the organizational level. In their article, Jutta Eckstein and John Buck augment Agile with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space, and Sociocracy, something they call “BOSSA nova,” and link those with strategy, structure, and process to cover key organizational issues.

One of the most exciting ideas percolating through the Agile community is “solutions-focused” thinking, advancing through micro changes. In the next piece, Géry Derbier and Soledad Pinter tell stories of using solutions-focused thinking over several years, in the large — across an organization — and in the small — at the single-person and single-team level.

In the post-Agile world, the Agile mindset is so natural that people don’t even need to reference it anymore; they look at the larger picture. Where should we be directing our energy, and will we get there? In the fifth piece, Gabrielle Benefield and Kubair Shirazee tell the story of using the Mobius framework, with its double-loop learning and ultra-rapid feedback, to help small business owners in Pakistan and perhaps stop the spread of radicalization and extremism.

In her article, Andi Graham describes how those at her digital marketing agency started working actively with clients, co-planning and co-designing with them. These new behaviors required her staff to expose their doubts and uncertainties to clients. Resistant at first, employees saw the difference in speed and quality of feedback, improved client relations, and higher efficiency. This story shows Agile adoption through small steps with wide-ranging effects.

Closing the issue, Abby Oulton describes how teachers and students at a self-directed learning school in New York started adopting Agile ideas to run their classrooms and how that idea spread to schools in several countries.

I trust you enjoy your reading.

1 See my coauthored article with Joshua Kerievsky and Andy Hunt in this issue (“Rebooting Agile”).

New in Cutter Business Technology Journal ...

Cutting-Edge Agile

This Cutter Business Technology Journal issue is available for purchase in the Cutter Bookstore. Discover new applications of agile practices in this "post-agile" age with Guest Editor Alistair Cockburn!



About The Author
Alistair Cockburn
Alistair Cockburn is a Cutter Expert and consulting fellow at Humans and Technology, where he helps clients succeed with object-oriented projects, including corporate strategy, project setup, staff mentoring, process development, technical design, and design quality. He is the originator of Crystal Light methodology and has more than 20 years' experience in leading projects. Dr. Cockburn was special advisor on project management and development… Read More