Idiots in the Agile Movement

I worry that the Agile Movement is suffering from what I have come to call the “specialist syndrome,” and I worry about it growing into a plague.

When I teach my class, “Design for Organizational Agility,” I talk about an organizational disease called the “specialist syndrome.” When what someone is doing and how they are doing it becomes more important than why they are doing it and for whom they are doing it, they suffer from the specialist syndrome.

It’s a common problem. People who are very, very smart, become so focused on what they are doing and how they are doing it, that it comes at the expense of why they are doing it and who they are doing it for—thus they become useless. The Greeks even had a word for people who were very, very smart, but who were useless. The word, “idiot,” comes from the Greek word, “idiotes,’ meaning useless. I worry about a growing population of idiots within the Agile community.

Through my participation in the Cutter Consortium in the late 1990’s, I was somewhat involved in the movement that would later come to be known as “Agile.” At the time, however, the movement was characterized by a variety of methodologies, each with their own names (e.g., Light Methodology, Extreme Programming (XP), Crystal, etc.), but each circling the same basic goal. That goal was to develop software in a way that resulted in a more useful and pleasing product for the customer, more pride in craftsmanship for the developer, and more reality with less stress for all. Each reached the same basic conclusion that greater trust and stronger collaboration among customer and craftsman, with more adaptiveness to change in both the process and the product, would be required.

While the goal was certainly noble and worthy, each of these methodologies had been embraced by their own zealots, who were building their own discipleships, and the whole thing was rather fragmented. While a certain amount of such squabbling is to be expected during the pioneering phase of anything new, IT has a history of chasing the next new, shiny thing, and a well-earned reputation of going through methodologies like a teenager goes through clothes. In fact, a colleague, Steve Hawrysh, and I published an article to express this concern, “Light Methodologies: It’s Like Déjà vu All Over Again,” published in the November, 2000 issue of the Cutter IT Journal, Volume 13, Number 11.

I knew Jim Highsmith from my work with Cutter, and when I learned that he and a bunch of other organizational anarchists had gotten together on a ski trip in February 2001 and forged the Agile Manifesto, which they published in August, I thought, “Good! Shared vision and values to unify the movement.” From my chair, this is when the Agile movement achieved critical mass.

Over the next 15+ years, I had less and less direct involvement with the Agile movement. My career shifted from leading software development organizations to a broader focus leading the creation of new organizations, renovating under-performing ones, and redesigning others that were performing OK, but were tooled for problems of the past. One of toolsets I drew upon was the philosophy and principles that were inherent in the Agile movement and applying them at an organizational leadership level.

However, this past year, with Mike Stuedemann’s and my creation of our firm, agilityIRL (agility In Real Life), I have returned, and I have to tell you that I am worried that the specialist syndrome which caused my concern during the movement’s formative years hasn’t gone away, but has only morphed. We may no longer have Light Methodologies, Extreme Programming, and the other methodologies, but we now have the Scrum Alliance, SAFe, and other Agile sects; we even have posers who have simply applied an agile coat of paint to otherwise traditional waterfall methodologies. And just like before, each sect has its own zealots cultivating their own discipleships, and building their own administrative infrastructures—an agile-industrial complex has been fabricated, and I can’t tell if their primary mission is to advance the cause or extract money from it.

What happened to agile being about producing reliable, change adaptive products in an enjoyable and productive cultural environment?

One thing I have learned over the course of my many years navigating life is that the person who is crazy, and perhaps even dangerous, is the person who says that their way is THE way.

I worry about the growing number and entrenchment of people in the Agile movement for whom what they are doing and how they are doing it is more important than why they are doing it and for whom they are doing it. I worry about the growing number of apparently power-wielding idiots within the Agile community.

1 Response
  1. John Komp

    Good points Jim. I think it’s more than that now though. Like any useful methodology, The Agile tent has been invaded by those that don’t understand Agile at all but know the buzz word and think it’s the salvation of all that ails. In my opinion they’re more dangerous than the entrenched zealots