Agile!? Can we call that something else?

Agile!? Can we call that something else?

Imagine you are driving a car. You enter a steep corner too fast. The car drifts off to the side. The airbags trigger. You are fine. What do you do? Do you blame the car?

That’s what I see in agile sometimes. Individuals getting off their agile car wreck saying: “oh, that didn’t work, let’s not call it agile anymore.” They blame the car, not their driving skills.

It usually happens after an incidence of ‘faux agile’: demanding status reports from autonomous teams or using stand-up meetings to instruct people what to do. You name it.

If you do not understand agile because you didn’t pass your driving test, you need to practice more. Please don’t blame it on agile.

There are two problems if you do: Firstly, by not calling things by their generally recognizable names, you water it down, create confusion and in-transparency. Secondly, by externalizing blame, you are refusing to learn. Transparency and learning are essential to agile.

So, be a wo/man: Admit that you made a mistake, promise to do it right next time. And move on.

Shu, Ha, Ri. If you don’t know better, start with adopting agile by the book.

However, there is one case where I am agreeable to the notion of not ‘calling it agile’: when I meet a mature, well managed agile business that, after learning (Shu) and experimentation (Ha) has found its own approach to agility (Ri) and struggles to put a generalizing label like ‘agile’ on it.

The other day I met the CIO of a large insurance in Singapore. They needed teams bigger than the typical Scrum 9 with a little bit more structure and flow. He struggled to call it ‘agile’. That is fine.

If you are creative, you can come up with an individual name. “New ways of working” is quite common. Or, if you are Spotify, call it the “Spotify model”.

At this point, you are illustrating what agility is: organizing yourself in such a way that you maximize external impact and customer value. If you struggle with labelling it ‘agile’, because you combined traditional and proven practices into the mix, so be it. The spirit of agile lies in the result, not the way or the name.

Agile embraces all other ways of working. An agile team is self-organizing. If it chooses to adopt a process-based traditional way of working and maximizes its results, it is still self-organizing. Scrum is only an option. The team decides.

If you now hear a howl, it will probably be an agile purist who is about to say: “If you are not following Scrum by the letter you cannot call yourself agile!” This person is probably a “Shu priest” who mistakes practice (“doing agile”) with principle (“being agile”).

So, next time you hear someone denouncing ‘agile’, dig deeper and find out if you are talking to an agile car wreck survivor or a true agile master. You may want to consider helping the first one and learn from the second.

Oct 10, 2019