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Is the Agile Manifesto dead? Not by a long shot.

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant

You've no doubt heard a lot of agile smack talk on social media lately. Authors and even Agile Manifesto signatories are speaking out against the software industry's beloved and most ubiquitous manifesto. In Is the Agile Manifesto dead? TechBeacon asked readers if agile is dead or just misunderstood.

My answer? Agile isn't dead—but it's definitely misunderstood.

Is agile a methodology or a philosophy?

Read through the debates between people who hate agile and people who love it, and you'll notice that there's a lot of confusion out there about what agile really means. Many people consider it a software development methodology and use it synonymously with scrum. Others see it as a philosophical approach that encourages collaboration, small iterations, and continuous improvement.

Although the authors of the Manifesto may have originally envisioned agile techniques as a way to help software development teams develop code more efficiently, many of the concepts are now being used in other business settings. Overuse of the word is one of the key issues that has arisen in the anti-agile movement.

In, Agile is Dead (Long Live Agility), Dave Thomas, one of the Agile Manifesto's signatories, says "The word 'agile' has been subverted to the point where it is effectively meaningless, and what passes for an agile community seems to be largely an arena for consultants and vendors to hawk services and products."

On the other side, there are people who say that whether you're talking about scrum or philosophical concepts, ideas associated with agile are working well for many organizations. Many concepts promoted as agile aren't new. Automated testing, iterative development, collaboration with customers, and continuous improvement all predate the Agile Manifesto. But using agile as an adjective to describe these techniques serves as a convenient way to categorize them as methods one can use to produce high-quality code efficiently. More organizations are finding success with agile methodologies such as scrum as they switch from traditional waterfall approaches to what have become more mainstream methodologies. Even those who believe the Agile Manifesto is dead must admit that many of the methodologies long associated with it are alive and well.

How the Agile Manifesto causes confusion

While the Agile Manifesto isn't entirely clear, it's certainly concise. A few key points include:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Thomas suggests in his blog that marketing hype often touts so-called "agile" products that are decidedly not living by the values promoted in the Manifesto:

"Now look at the consultants and vendors who say they'll get you started with 'agile.' Ask yourself where they are positioned on the left-right axis. My guess is that you'll find them process and tool heavy, with many suggested work products (consultant-speak for documents to keep managers happy) and considerably more planning than the contents of a whiteboard and some sticky notes."

While I respect the Manifesto, its ambiguity causes a lot of confusion. The value comparison most in need of a revamp is the one to which Thomas refers: individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Thomas's example, and agile proponents in general, promote collocated teams, whiteboards, and sticky notes over electronic tools. Perhaps you'll still have some small collocated teams, but with industry trends that promote mobility, diversity, and work-from-anywhere policies, distributed teams are a reality. Having processes and tools that facilitate trust, collaboration, and communication—regardless of physical location—gives both employers and employees more flexibility. Having that flexibility will benefit individuals and allows for interactions beyond the collocated team. Why even compare individuals and interactions to processes and tools? Why not find the processes and tools that are most beneficial for individuals and interactions?

The Manifesto was written for small teams

Although the values espoused in the Manifesto work well for small teams, they don't scale well. Larger enterprise projects require more planning, processes, tools, and documentation than smaller projects. They don't need the tomes produced in traditional waterfall projects, but they need more documentation than what fits on a whiteboard and sticky notes.

In his speech at Agile 2009, well-known signatory Alistair Cockburn said, "I Come to Bury Agile, Not to Praise It." Taken out of context, this statement could be interpreted as an anti-agile stance. What Cockburn meant is that the Agile Manifesto originally applied to small teams. He summarizes:

"Agile came from small, colocated (sic) projects in the 1990s. It has spread to large, globally distributed commercial projects, affecting the IEEE, the PMI, the SEI and the Department of Defense. Agile now sits in a larger landscape and should be viewed accordingly. This talk shows that landscape, clarifying how classical agile fits in and what constitutes effective development outside that narrow area."

Stop whining—start improving

A key agile principle is to adapt and continually improve. So, rather than complaining about agile's shortcomings and debating whether the Manifesto is dead, why not suggest improvements?

In his recent post, Agile Cancer: Stop Whining and Cure It, Zach Bonaker reminds agilists that whining rather than trying to resolve the issues is, in itself, anti-agile. Viewing management as people who just get in the way will lead to failure. Speaking a common language and eliciting management support is more likely to produce a better outcome. He describes five base patterns for organizations to use that can help answer the question: Are we agile?

Andrew Hunt, another Manifesto signatory who's frustrated with the misunderstanding and misuse of agile terminology and methodologies, proposes the GROWS method: Grow Real-World Oriented Working Systems.

In addition, several software development methodologies, including Dean Leffingwell's Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), are gaining popularity as a way to evolve agile methodologies to better handle large projects.

Where do you stand?

Do you believe the Manifesto is timeless? Do you love it just the way it is? If so, you can show your support by adding your name to the growing list of signatures.

If you're one of the growing number of people who feels frustrated by the Manifesto, what do you think should be done? Don't just sit back and complain about the problems. Speak up and help create Agile Manifesto 2.0.

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