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Post-Agile thoughts

We are now in the “post-Agile” age.

“Post”-something means that we are in an in-between period, where one thing has been incorporated into our culture and the next thing has not yet 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.

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.

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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.

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, evolving and building on them.

By talking about ideas and decisions, we remove the baggage that has accrued around Agile as being about product development, allowing it to help any organization with initiatives of every sort. Using this approach, and working this way, they will steer to their desired end goal more quickly, more cheaply, and more effectively.

• Collaboration and early delivery as ways to improve decisions.

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.

• A culture of listening.

This brings us to the culture of listening, a recent evolution of the Agile culture. The old process-change mechanism was (sadly, often still is) for one person to tell the others what their new roles and processes are. Executives have been known to say to consultants, “You’re getting paid for this. 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 be in dialogue with them, so they can in turn be in dialogue with their workers to arrive at the best ideas going forward.

The Heart of Agile community 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.

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…the end of this fragment. (the rest goes on to introduce the articles in the issue)…

Publication note: This is an extract from the introduction I wrote as guest editor for a special issue of the Cutter Business Technology Journal (Vol. 32, No. 3) on “Cutting Edge” of Agile. You can get The Cutter Edge free at www.cutter.com. This particular special issue is behind a pay wall so you may not see the whole issue. You’ll need to visit their website to decide what to do next, of course.

Note on the image: Gabrielle Benefield’s “Mobius” framework. I consider Mobius the first real post-agile framework, and when looking for an image for this note, decided her double-loop makes a nice visual tag for the concept of post-agile. Thanks, Gabrielle.

Alistair Cockburn, April 22, 2019

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