Agile: The next step

February 2012

A path across the river made from stepping stonesTen years of agile methods for software development have had an extremely positive impact on the IT industry. With this in mind Jim Highsmith, ThoughtWorks, looks back at those 10 years and looks ahead to the agile movement’s teenage years.

Recently, I’ve read blogs and articles from ‘agilists’ who are bemoaning the state of the agile movement. They are concerned that the movement has gone awry and that they are not living up to the vision of the founders. So, what did they expect?

As any movement expands from its narrow early base of practitioners, others take it in unforeseen directions - some good, some not so good. That’s just the way movements go. As we reflect on 10 years of agile, I’d prefer to focus on the positive - how we’ve learned to deliver value to customers faster, how we’ve brought quality to the forefront in ways that haven’t happened before, and how we’ve improved the quality of work places around the globe.

Marching on forward

There has surely been a large influx of imitators into the agile movement - an inevitable development as the market for agile services and tools has expanded rapidly. Many of these imitators added improvements while some have tarnished the agile brand. But the real question is how do we keep moving forward as a movement?

There are at least four key ways that come to mind. Let me explain...

  • Innovate. I’m encouraged by the continuous innovation I see in agile: DevOps, continuous delivery, the conversations over technical debt, lean, agile / adaptive leadership etc. Continued innovation combats the creep of staleness that tends to infect movements after a few years.
  • Idealism vs. practicality. As agile permeates into larger organisations; we have to focus on both idealism and practicality. Many people don’t care much about obscure arguments - they care about results. Idealism and innovation are absolutely necessary for a vibrant movement, but they need to be balanced with a dose of practicality in organisational transitions.
  • Reinvigorate. The power and attractiveness of the agile movement lies in its values as expressed in the Agile Manifesto and the Declaration of Interdependence. The more we can emphasise the dual importance of both doing agile (practices) and being agile (values), the better we can move forward on a more solid foundation.
  • Unify vs. splinter. As any movement grows, there are times when it tends to splinter and times when it unifies. We need to bring the agile / lean / etc. communities together, rather than continue to splinter further, leaving less space for the idiots to exploit.

The important goal is to rotate back and forth between innovators and imitators - advancing and then consolidating - without falling into the idiot trap (as did the financial industry). I hope that by focusing on agile values and principles, continuing to innovate, balancing between idealism and practically and taking opportunities to unify rather than splinter will keep the idiots at bay.

Innovation, improvements and innovators

Another reflection is that the improvements to agile lie, not in popularisation but in continued innovation and innovators. Innovation requires stepping out of comfort zones and being different from others.

Ten years ago, in February 2001, a group of 17 unconventional, unorthodox individuals got together, wrote the Agile Manifesto and launched the agile movement. In the last 10 years agile delivery has often moved from the unconventional to the conventional, from the maverick to the conformist. What now? The roots of agility are in complex adaptive systems and the notion of operating at the edge-of-chaos - that knife-edged balancing point between chaos and stifling structure.

As we move into the adolescent years of the agile movement, we can’t forget that agility isn’t about structure, practices, and conventions. Agility is ultimately about living on the edge, of pushing the envelope, of standing out in a crowd, of being lopsided in a world of conformity.

Teenagers are unpredictable. The teen years are bumpy, sometimes teens do great things, and sometimes they get into trouble. As the agile movement matures past its tenth  anniversary, it will be unpredictable also.

An expanded future

My final reflection on the agile movement is about an expanded future. Enterprises are beginning to expand on their success with agile software development. They’re looking at bringing agile principles and practice to other parts to the enterprise. The industry appears to be at a tipping point to a far more strategic opportunity to implement agility at an enterprise level.

In the face of markets characterised by rapid change, complexity, and ambiguity, enterprise executives are finding new ways of harnessing their organisation’s creativity, adaptability, operating prowess and customer relationships. In various circles, this leadership style for the future has been called creative leadership, adaptive leadership, Management 2.0 (and 3.0), collaborative leadership, light-touch leadership and agile leadership.

About Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith, an executive consultant at ThoughtWorks, first began his career working on the Apollo manned space program and then found himself launching his first agile project in the 1990’s. He is a published author of three books on agile and was also awarded the 2005 International Stevens Award for his contributions to software development. Today, he has helped the likes of Amazon, BT, Expedia, Lonely Planet and thetrainline.com with their approaches to software development.

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    Gareth Davies wrote on 2nd Mar 2012

    Dear Jim

    I wonder - do you have some tangible evidence for your assertions about "Agile"? for example a demonstration of improved company performance as measured in the financial accounts which is directly linked to improved information productivity resulting from the adoption of "Agile" ideas.

    Much appreciated Gareth

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    David wrote on 21st Aug 2012

    @Gareth

    If such data were available, how would you separate the effect of Agile from other factors (the economy, other changes of strategy, ebb and flow of major customers and contracts, etc?). Companies aren't generally run as controlled scientific experiments.

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