Agile Hot and Heavy

One of the hottest buzz words in many organizations right now is “agile.”  We hear about “the agile methodology” and “agile methods.”  We hear about scrum, XP, and—far less often—crystal.  And we hear about the Agile Manifesto and the principles that elaborate and support it.  Now “agile” is being productized by consulting organizations and is spreading from the software industry to other industries.

All fine and good.

However, something is up here.  As is true of many things that work well, agile is based on solid, proven research by scientists and researchers who likely didn’t have building software in mind at all when they were doing their research.  Often, these bright people are not given credit by agilists, which is what people who enthusiastically advocate agile methods are often called.  And, as agile, particularly Scrum, is elaborated and productized we see simultaneously not only enhancement and in some cases blurring of the original tools and methods but also an emerging risk of a next generation of practitioners who know the rules better than they know the science behind them.

This is concerning to me, because these frameworks, if engaged with intelligently and conscientiously, do have the ability to “work miracles” in terms of helping people make progress in terms of realizing human potential in weeks and months that they might not otherwise have made in years.  If agile methods are reduced to a set of rules, glossary terms, and protocols, these benefits are unlikely to be realized, the methods risk accruing a reputation they may well not deserve, and the chance for them to spread successfully is starved for oxygen.

The last several weeks I have been traveling a fair amount going to various trainings and conferences.  It’s been interesting and disorienting because usually I’m pretty much a homebody.  The last two days I’ve spent listening to two people talk a lot about agile, and mostly they meant scrum when they said agile.  They were largely concerned with the aspect of a software project that many people say that Scrum does not do well:  product management within and beyond the scope of the actual software development effort.  Though they said the role they were describing, the Product Owner, was a leadership role rather than a management role, much of what they were talking about seemed to me to be management practices rather than leadership practices.  Coercion and deception of the willing creeping back into agile?  Maybe.

To my mind, agile methods such as scrum and XP hold out the promise of restoring self-leadership and an awareness of personal agency to the individual worker.  Kostenbaum and Block consider the topic of personal agency at length in their book, Freedom and Accountability at Work:  Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World.  Abdication of personal agency is a great danger and an entrenched tradition in many American workplaces.  It manifests itself in the persona of the “good soldier” who excels at just doing whatever he or she is told.  David Whyte in The Heart Aroused talks at length about what becomes of many of these good soldiers by the time they are mid-career.  His most riveting image is that of the worker who walks in to work one day and finds a corpse across the door—and then notices that corpse is their own.

Choosing each day to do what we do as we do it, learning from our mistakes in that doing, and choosing whether to go on—all the time in the context of community are critical ingredients to a life well-lived.  Such aspects of living well contribute to our potential to lying down on our last bed knowing that we have been the hero of our own life rather than simply the instrument of an organization.

In order to preserve what is enlivening in what is called “agile” in the software industry, it is important to be aware of and regularly trace back to the sources upon which these agile methods are based.  As agile, and particularly Scrum, is productized the risk becomes great that the beating heart of the method will be replaced by a carefully designed artificial organ.

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