Agile: Not a Magic Pill

No one on software teams believes in waterfall any longer. That’s what The 2013 Study of Product Team Performance revealed.

Table correlating methods teams use with those they associate with better product profitability

As the correlation chart shows at a glance, agile, blended and lean teams each correlate their own method with increased profitability, but waterfall teams believe that any method other than waterfall would make their product more profitable.

That doesn’t mean agile, blended and lean are magic pills. Agile is not easy to do well. But waterfall is almost impossible to do well.

Mike Cohn notes, “Becoming agile is hard. It is harder than most other organizational change efforts I’ve witnessed or been part of [for reasons] including the need to change from the top-down and bottom-up simultaneously, the impossibility of knowing exactly what the end state will look like, the dramatic and pervasive changes caused by Scrum, the difficulty adding more change on top of all that is already occurring, and the need to avoid turning Scrum into a list of best practices.”

To that last point, despite the efforts of trainers and coaches to inculcate agile’s values and principles, human brains latch onto the concrete: practices, rituals and customs.

When software development gets hard, as it almost always does, instead of clinging to practices and rituals, we should be realigning our practices with the spirit of agile. Just as going to class doesn’t make us educated, performing practices and rituals won’t make our teams agile. Agile means embracing true change, not just tweaking the process at the outside corners, where it’s most comfortable.

But practices do have purpose. They support us in living agile’s values. That means we can’t let centuries of top-down management and waterfall thinking erode our organizations’ practices beyond recognition, as we’ve all seen happen.

I can’t count all the times I’ve heard “we do agile” – only to discover that “we do standups” translates to “we do them sitting down, they take an hour, and… oh, what was that about there being three questions?”

In a long thread on agile and waterfall I was following earlier this year, a contributor named Greyfox observed, “I often see inept upper managers latch onto agile as the latest magic bullet which will solve all their problems with no other changes on their part. Except they keep all the micromanagement bits, discard all the engineer empowerment bits and hand their scrum team a year’s worth of priority 1 stories to implement in the next sprint.”

It’s agile’s values, supported by well-formed practices, that ultimately nurture frictionless, high performance delivery.

And as team members know, it beats waterfall.


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