Imagine that you have discovered that you enjoy the vegetarian diet. Your body responds well, you feel more vital and digestion is a clockwork. You run into a friend and tell them about the fantastic results you have achieved by eating vegetarian food. Your friend becomes convinced and decides to visit a vegetarian restaurant.
Later, when you meet again, your friend is remarkably upset and complains about how awful the vegetarian diet is. The meat in particular was tough.You look at your friend in amazement and ask if it was really a vegetarian restaurant, there shouldn't be meat in the food. Absolutely, the friend replies, they were even certified by an organization that appeared recently, now that the vegetarian diet is in demand..
Agile has become very popular, especially within system development. The effects are, among other things, more motivated staff and rapid adaptation to new conditions.
When something becomes so popular, everyone wants to hang on and call their way of working agile. It means "good", simply. Agile project management, agile requirements and so on. Maybe you can earn a penny too?
At the same time, I read frustrated people's comments on social media. What is this agile thing, it seems crazy!? From the descriptions, I understand that they have been exposed to what I call the Agile theater.
“If it is not working, you're not doing it right,” all process people tend to say. But it's not that helpful. It is also known as the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.
But Agile is not a process you buy off the shelf, it is a philosophy with 4 values and 12 principles that you use to build a way of working. There are also agile practices, such as Scrum and Kanban, but those should be seen as a help to get started.
You can skip parts of Scrum, Daily Scrum is not needed for those who apply ensemble programming. Still, Agile values and principles are followed.
At the Agile theater things are the other way around. The practice is a script to be followed and the director is stern. Nothing is for real. After the performance, the audience goes home and the scenery flats are rolled away. A feeling of emptiness remains, on top of that everything is as it was before.
Let's see what the Agile theater has to offer.
In Scrum there is a daily meeting called “Daily Scrum” but nowadays often called “stand-up”. Already in the shift of the name, the focus has gone from what it is to what you do, you stand up.
This meeting is for creating focus in the team, coordinating if you are working on several things at the same time and asking each other for help. It is also important that everyone participates actively to create a team spirit and ensure that everyone's skills come to their full potential.
In the Agile theater, the meeting has turned into status reporting. Everyone is held accountable individually for what they have done, in contrast to a team that looks forward and prepares for the day to start.
An assignment of tasks also takes place instead of the team picking themselves. This violates the agile principle of trusting a motivated team to get the job done. Instead, they have manifested their lack of trust in the form of a daily meeting. No wonder it's unpopular!
“Retrospective” - two different stagings
The most important meeting, the retrospective, is based on the Agile principle “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
No matter how silly you behave, you can always correct it by having retrospectives, so that's why that meeting is the only meeting you can never skip.
A retrospective is a meeting where you can respectfully and safely reflect on how things have been recently to see what can be improved, either by agreeing on behaviors towards each other or on some action, e.g. remove the shelves and turn the desks so we can communicate better.
You should be able to safely say what you think and everyone else should interpret it favorably.
The Agile theater has several stagings of the retrospective. One is the “Whining retro” where everyone vents their displeasure but nothing happens. There is no result. Probably they have not understood what is required to create change. Perhaps they have heard a rumor that the landlord decides where the desks should stand.
This type of retrospective is recognized by the fact that the same questions come up again and again without any solutions. Eventually the team gets tired and stops caring about the meeting.
Another staging is the “Control Retro”, where someone outside the team wants to lift the lid to see where the team stands. But without intending to make any change. Typically, the meeting is led in an authoritarian style and uncomfortable opinions are silenced.
Ladies and gentlemen: The factory
A frequently performed play at the Agile theater is “The Factory”. In this play, it is taken into account that the Agile manifesto talks about working software as a measure of progress. Let's push out as much software as possible and we will be successful!
However, it is ignored that the first principle is that the customer should be satisfied with valuable software. Nor that simplicity is another principle, is given any interest.
In the factory, there is a feeling of doing things because you have been told to, not because you believe in it yourself. The understanding of the product's users, their situation and their needs, is minimal.
No one in the factory has ever met a user or seen them try to use the product.
The values and principles were written down in 2001 in the Agile manifesto. Time has taken its toll on it, especially the language. Some things, for example “psychological safety”, have been added to our common understanding of Agile as we explore what happens when we follow these ideas.
But it is still the case that to say that you work agile, it is the manifesto that sets the boundaries, otherwise it is something else you do. Although a meat dish may be as good as it gets, it is never vegetarian. And if the meat dish is not good, the vegetarian diet cannot be blamed for it.
If it doesn't feel good, it probably isn't good. If the ceremonies do not deliver what they promise, it is probably theater and not for real.