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Agile is not dead, quite the opposite

Figure what is still to come small

Three billion people form the global labor pool; 227 million in Europe, 130 million full-time employees in the US, 48% of the US workers are in knowledge work; there are 4.6 million IT workers in the US alone, over 3 million in India. IT in India accounted for 8% of its GDP already in 2013, in 2014 it generated 120 billion dollars. There are over 650 million people in Latin America, the ratio of knowledge workers there will grow. In the US alone, the labor pool is expected to grow to 160 million by 2022, several million per year. (see references)

Even with almost a million people who have taken a Certified ScrumMaster course from the Scrum Alliance, and perhaps double that for non-certified agile or non-Scrum courses, we have scarcely touched the work force. We can see from the above numbers that we have hardly scratched the surface of people who can benefit from working with the agile mindset.

So, no, agile is not dead, quite the opposite.

Why then, do we read of agile’s death? Three reasons: phony ads, misunderstanding ordinary movement of ideas through society, and looking at the wrong curves.

The first, phony ads, is when writers are selling something and they promote their idea by bouncing off the fear and hope that something better is just around the corner. Just like the new diet when you never followed the old diet, but hope to lose weight anyway. “Agile is dead, use my new thingerythingy!” The sales pitch is pretty obvious when you look for it. Ignore those articles, they are just cheap sales tricks.

The second is that people don’t recognize the ordinary movement of ideas through the population. Let’s look at that, it’s interesting.

Actually, even well-read people get it wrong, which will get us to the third reason. But let’s start at the beginning.

Everett Rogers wrote about the “diffusion of innovation” in the 1970s. He drew this curve (Fig 1).

Rogers diffusion curve

Rogers diffusion curve

Fig 1: Diffusion of Innovation, from Rogers.

Geoffrey Moore identified a sales gap  between early adopters and early majority, called it the “chasm”, and made the following curve famous (Fig 2).

Moore crossing chasm curve

Moore crossing chasm curve

Fig 2: Crossing the chasm curve, from Moore.

According to these curves (which I think we’re misreading, the third mistake), we can understand the second mistake, that some pundits think agile is dead, when it is very much alive, prospering and growing.

Agile crossed Geoffrey Moore’s “chasm” in the late 2000s, passed through the early majority in the mid -teens, and is making inroads into the late majority as we hit 2020.

The pundits you are reading typically are innovators and early adopters. They adopted agile 10-15 years ago. Quite naturally, they have moved on and are working on the 2nd or 3rd round of interesting things that have arrived since then. (This I discussed more in What happens after Agile crosses the chasm). They have been looking at lean startup, hypothesis testing, and agile product management, for example. All agile consequences, just a little more advanced. They have quite naturally (for them) forgotten the joy of discovering the agile approach for the first time. Everyone they know is already using it or has moved forward. To them it looks “passé”, “dead”.

Then, some are saddened that so many people are turning agile methods to quick money. Agile is now an easy source of profit. Two-day certifications are the snake oil of the IT industry; organizational transformations the goose that lays the golden egg. Since a good idea was turned into cheap profiteering, these people claim that agile failed its promise.

I don’t worry about any of that, because people are just people.

Only one of two things will happen to your brilliant idea: It will be misrepresented and misused or it will be ignored – and you don’t get to choose which. Agile became successful, therefore it is being misquoted, exploited, misrepresented, and misused. This means it has been successful. I bear in mind that I was part of half a dozen other manifesto-writing workshops, none of which are being exploited and misrepresented. That’s because no one’s heard of them. They have had no effect on the world. So agile works, is successful, and people are using it to further their personal agendas. People are just people.

Here is a way to think about agile being alive or dead:

You are starting a project. You can run it as agile-ish as you can manage under your particular circumstances, or you can run it another way that you think will be more effective. Choice A: agile. Choice B: something else. What is the something else that you think is more effective?

For most projects, I can’t think of another way that is more effective. Collaborate, deliver, reflect, improve, in cycles, from first idea until final delivery. This works whatever the nature of the project (no, agile is not just for software).

Even badly done agile (please complain away at this moment, it’s fine, there is a lot of bad agile out there), tends to be better than whatever came before it. That only tells you how bad all the things were that came before. They were terrible, largely nonsensical. So if badly done agile is better than that, it means that not only is agile not dead, but is actually in its birth stages, where people still get to learn how to do it better over time.

But let’s get back to that curve that I said was wrong. The news is startling.

Note that in what follows, I am doing back-of-the-envelope calculations. Be aware of this when you quote the following curves.

We are in the late-majority period. The early adopters have got it, moved on. The early majority is working on digesting what they have started. We are now introducing agile to the military, to governments, to insurance companies, telecoms, banks, utilities, conservative organizations. The late majority. We feel the laggards already. According to the Rogers curve, we are 75% of the way through the population.

But what population exactly are we 75% of the way through?

Look at the numbers at the top of the article, which come from reliable sources (see the references at the end). Our “75% of the population” is two million people globally. That global figure is less than 1% of the working population of Europe, just over 1% of the working population of the US, doesn’t even scratch the surface of the working population in Latin America and India! That global quantity is perhaps 1/60th of the knowledge workforce in just the US alone, using those figures, and the work force is growing, new people coming in every year.

So what is this curve that Rogers and Moore are showing us and that we are anchoring on? It is a picture of the bell-shaped curve for 1% of the population!

To put this into perspective, look at Fig. 3.

Figure what is still to come large

Figure what is still to come large

Fig 3. Where we are, and what is still to come.

See that little bump on the left? That’s the entire Rogers curve we have been using, plotted against the available working population who should learn about and use agile methods to improve the outcomes of their projects! (And probably make happier workers).

The entire distance we’ve come since 2001 doesn’t even fill the “innovators” section of Rogers’ innovation diffusion curve!

So, no, agile is not dead, on the contrary. It’s scarcely gotten started.

Collaborate, deliver, reflect, and improve, in tight cycles.
If you can find something better, use it.



(Alistair Cockburn, August 19, 2019)

(Postscript: This article follows naturally after What happens after Agile crosses the chasm, in case you want to read that.)


Sources: : “the global labor pool consisted of approximately 3 billion workers” : “As of July 2019, there were 132.15 million full-time employees in the United States.” : “In 2017, 227.0 million persons were in employment”  : “The number of information technology (IT) workers now stands at 4.6 million, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.” : “In the US, about 48% of workers can be classified as “knowledge workers” : “In 2013, information technology and its various subsectors represented 8 percent of the nation’s overall GDP, making it the fifth largest industry in India. In the 2014/15 financial year alone, the IT industry in India generated an annual revenue of around 120 billion U.S. dollars,” : “650 million inhabitants latin American and carribean ” : “The U.S. labor force is projected to reach 163.5 million in 2022. The labor force is anticipated to grow by 8.5 million, an annual growth rate of 0.5 percent, over the 2012–2022 period.”  : Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, popularized the theory in his book Diffusion of Innovations; : Fig 1 : Fig 2



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