Unstucking the agile movement

After more than 20 years, the agile movement seems to be stuck in a similar way software development was stuck end of the 1990ies. Like what agile did for software development, a fresh perspective is needed to unstuck agile. This article explores how this could be achieved.

In the 1990s, software development projects started to run into more and more problems. As technologies progressed quickly, the complexity and the size of the projects increased exponentially. More and more projects ran over budget and time, became death marches, or failed.

The software developers started to act. They thought that they didn’t do it right. So they worked harder, did it better, and differently. Great things were invented like software engineering, object orientation, and use cases. But it didn’t work.

Just developing software better was not the solution. Software development was stuck in the box, turning faster and faster trying to get out of the death marches.

It took outside-the-box thinking to find a solution. For me, it started with Peopleware and extreme programming which hinted that not software development itself is the problem but the ways of working with software in a waterfall-way.

XP showed us the door out of the box that was eventually fully opened by the agile manifesto for software engineering and Scrum. As people started to adopt Scrum, they walked through the door and project success rates recovered.

20 years later, it seems that the agile movement itself is stuck in a box. Undoubtedly an success story in software development with 94% of organizations practising agile, agile is currently trending down, challenged with scaling and business agility. It feels that it somewhat reached an inflection point.

As the adoption of agile methods stalls, the community invents increasingly more and more complex methods and frameworks like SAFe, LeSS, or agile leadership. All in the hope that doing agile harder will bring salvation. It may not work. As with software development, a new perspective may be needed.

New perspective – watch the chasm

One new perspective is the realisation that the agile movement is stuck at the left side of the product adoption cycle and is facing the chasm that is dividing the innovators and early adopters on the left that ‚get it‘ naturally from the early majority and others on the right that do not.

There you find people with a drastically different mindset, who cannot be so easily convinced, are hesitant to change their proven ways of working, ask „What is in it for me?“, and „Why is it needed?“.

Shouting at them from the left side of the chasm and complaining about them will not work. They are the majority.

Instead of staying on the left side, inside of the agile box, and turning faster and faster inventing ever bigger hammers to bang the walls and maybe the heads of the resistors, agile needs to find a way to get out and over the chasm.

For this, agile practitioners need to understand the perspectives of those on the other side, learn to speak their language, align with them and, finally, move forward together. The agile movement is challenged with finding better answers to “Why agile?”.

Answering „Why?“ with using agile as an adjective

To define the „Why?“, it is helpful to think of agile as an adjective rather than a noun. The „Why?“, purpose, and usefulness of agile do not come from itself but from applying it to something. You need to make something agile. And it better be something that clearly needs it.

That something needs to be found, its current issues identified, and then we need to demonstrate how the application of agile ways of working makes it better.

We need to prove that agile HR, agile Finance, agile Management, agile Leadership, or agile Coffee, are better than the old ways.

Leaving the agile box

Realising that we’re standing still on the left side of the chasm, that agile is an adjective, and reimagining management, maybe opening the door of the box but it will take more to go through it and leave the box.

Similarly to people using Scrum at the beginning of the 2000s, all agile practitioners need to seek to make themselves understood to those on the other side of the chasm, demonstrate how agile adds value, connect with them, and answer the „Why?“ convincingly.

This is not easy. Agile ways of working are drastically different from the old ways and require changes of not only processes and practices but also of principles, assumptions, and mindsets. This takes time and persistence.

But there might also be a pull. A big pull and opportunity.

Agile to the rescue

If we can demonstrate that agile ways of working contribute not only to the resolution of corporate issues but also to the many challenges we face on our planet, our countries, and societies, we will get out.

For example, the increasing urgency of sustainability with its ever-tighter deadlines creates tremendous transformation pressure on organizations and entire industries.

It may seem that this is detrimental for the other two ongoing transformations – digital and agile – but the opposite is true. It will pull them.

These three main transformations are part of the five big megatrends of our times and form a virtuous triangle:

While the relationship between digital and sustainable is defined increasingly better as „twin transition„, the role of agile is not sufficiently explored.

Pulling agile

The relationship between digital and agile is more established and covers, for example, innovation, automation, and enablement.

The relationship between agile and sustainable is emergent and will concern topics like simplification, reduction of bureaucracy, higher productivity, and health.

For example, „Agile ways of working, through the concept of maximizing the amount of work not done, reduces efforts, preserves resources, and minimizes CO2 emissions.“

By using those relationships to articulate the „Why?“ of agile we may create the pull that we need to cross the chasm.

Let’s get started today.

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