Agile methods are powerful tools when used properly — but as with all tools, they can be misused. The critics of agile methods are many and vocal, often looking at agile as a host of poorly thought-out and incomplete “shortcuts” that fail to get the job done. And with 90% of projects failing to meet objectives, the criticism is valid.
So is Agile just hype or is there something to it?
There are strengths to the agile way of thinking, and many of them bring useful perspectives to software and systems development that are new and even revolutionary. Here are some of the things that work — and, potentially, that radically change our old-world practices.
Whereas most legacy methods stem from industrial process — that is, assembling a product using a set of defined, predictable steps — the agile method is empirical. It recognizes that development is more like invention and research, more akin to scientific study, than assembly. This empirical nature is at the heart of the agile mantra: Deliver, measure, adjust and repeat. The strength of this approach often bears itself out in fantastically hyperproductive teams that deliver working product far more quickly than legacy methods, such as waterfall, could ever achieve.
Agile does this by cutting through complexity. Every agile-based methodology focuses on simplification of otherwise complicated problems. For example, XP and Scrum both emphasize development of near-term, complete deliverables. This means carving out tangible and reasonably independent pieces of work, focusing on that work, and then — at least as much as possible — moving on to other work. This approach requires that large, complex problems are broken down into manageable pieces and thought of on a micro-deliverable level. Likewise, this approach minimizes ceremony and eschews as much procedure as possible. Some agile methods go to extremes in this regard, focusing entirely on delivering work product and not at all on procedure. This translates into minimizing complexity on a large scale.
Closely related to eliminating complexity is agile’s focus on progress measurement. Most agile methods measure progress chiefly, if not exclusively, in terms of delivered work product. Most methods also are quite stringent in defining progress only when finished work is delivered, which means you can’t work for nine months on a single big feature. Instead, micro-deliverables target key features, deliver those features into the customer’s hands, then moving on to new features. This can be a huge strength because the customer gets working product in-hand to review early, and often. It involves the customer early in product evolution, leading to a host of benefits including better product targeting, prioritized development and improved quality.
These characteristics of agile methods combine to fundamentally change the way software and systems development is practiced. Agile also empowers individuals to become stellar performers. In fact, all forms of agile rely on this to some degree — with more lightweight agile methods being completely dependent on individual empowerment. The idea is that an empowered team will leap over constraints to get the job done, no matter how “out of the box” the thinking needs to be. It’s a refreshing concept and one that can indeed be supremely successful, but it does require the team to embrace the idea wholeheartedly.
Another benefit, at least in some situations, is the creation of self-organizing teams. Partly because of the light ceremony, the fast pace, and the penchant for empowerment and accountability, teams become self-organizing. This works when the team has the right make-up, as individuals step up to take on tasks best suited to individual skills. Self-organized, empowered teams become very powerful and very productive, provided that the team members are up to the job.
There is absolutely no doubt that agile methods make it possible to get things done quickly. That’s what it’s all about, after all. The real question to me is how much of this tradeoff is really desirable? How often do we want to eschew process and maturity in favor of getting things done quickly?
More importantly: Can we effectively merge the best attributes of Agility with the most valuable benefits of established processes and standards?
Why Agile doesn’t work
When an agile project fails, it generally does so spectacularly and predictably. The common failings of agile-based projects are just that… common. We see the same problems over and over again, and this has become the basis for many critiques of agile methodology. After all, if we keep seeing the same problems crop up again and again, isn’t this proof enough that the process is flawed? This becomes clear in hindsight, so why do we continue to see 90 percent of projects missing the mark?
The fact is, agile by itself is just one tool in the toolbox that should be applied with other implements of the trade. In my experience, the problem comes in most often because small- and mid-sized organizations experience brilliant success with agile and then assume it can work everywhere. They throw out the toolbox (or perhaps never buy one in the first place). Yes, agile can succeed. Yes, it can deliver fantastic productivity and stellar results. But not always — in fact, I will go so far as to say not often.
This isn’t because of agile’s limitations. Instead, it’s because of overconfidence by those putting it to use, and the mistakes an immature organization makes as it grows and applies it inappropriately.
Immature companies and teams are cutting their teeth, again and again, on the limitations of agile.
All agile methods make it easy to oversimplify complexity. In fact, agile’s strength of eliminating complexity might be better stated as “ignoring complexity.” There are appropriate situations for this but, more often than not, ignoring complexity leads to problems. Most business cases don’t call for undefined delivery dates or loosely changing requirements and partial deliveries. These are risks that most business models are incompatible with. If the risks aren’t something that your business can sustain, adopting a purely agile process is taking a huge gamble.
Likewise, focusing on the near-term is an agile attribute that introduces a lot of unknowns into the business-end of an equation. Few people will contend that agile is appropriate for mission critical efforts such as, say, launch vehicle development, as sometimes requirements need to be set in stone before anyone starts development. But what about situations where some degree of fuzziness is acceptable or even beneficial? Agile advocates compatibility with change, sidestepping change control procedures that would otherwise place tight controls over requirements. Requirements change carries with it a heavy burden, particularly when it comes to the cross-organizational impact to marketing, budget, quality management and the customer. However, cutting change control, requirements management, and configuration management from the process can lead to long-term disaster that the short-term perspective of most agile methods will overlook.
This theme of reducing structure and control has cut out many waterfall-origin processes. The danger often manifests as small-scale agile projects are successful, leading to wider-scale adoption of agile. But, as the projects grow in complexity and criticality, major missing components in the process become evident. For example, no agile methods today integrate comprehensive quality assurance procedures (in fact, thanks to some early mistakes, such as MIL-STD-498[#], most people think quality assurance is software testing — it’s not). Structured software testing often becomes an afterthought, and risk management programs tend to be regarded as “fuzzy disciplines.” Yet, these are the processes that successfully put man on the moon, that develop health care and financial services systems, and ensure that nuclear plant regulatory systems don’t fail after delivery. Of course, there is a cost to each of these processes, and every business needs to weigh the cost-benefit of adopting more process against cutting those processes. This needs to be an on-going evaluation, made as projects, organizations, and teams evolve — it’s not a decision that stands alone.
From a purely hands-on, management level, agile methods pose “people problems” as well. The strong emphasis on self-organization and empowerment can easily backfire. The former relies heavily on people that are capable of self-management and self-direction. Not everyone can live up to that expectation. The latter, delivering empowerment to the team and individual, can lead to a hero mentality and silo’d teams that refuse to play well with others. As projects grow in size, complexity, and dependency on other teams and resources, these characteristics become the drawback of an immature organization.
Almost all agile methods oversimplify valuable processes. In some situations, the project survives the oversimplification. Sometimes the business is tolerant of the fallout. In every case, agile methods expose the project to risks that stakeholders should be — and often are not — aware of.
What to do about it
We need to be cognizant that one solution does not fit all problems. While an agile method such as XP or Scrum may have led to success in one project, this doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion that it will do so again. Each project is different, and organizations evolve over time. Adopting one process to solve all problems is a sure recipe for failure. On the other hand, having a well-versed team that can draw on several methodologies, as appropriate for the job, is a recipe for success.
If your organization is looking for the one-size hammer to hit every nail, make sure it’s as configurable a hammer as possible. Don’t choose something that is either too lightweight, such as XP, because many projects will overreach the capabilities of such a lightweight process. Likewise, don’t try to implement a full-on waterfall style methodology either because, while definitely thorough and capable of getting the job done, it’s just overkill for many smaller projects. If you must choose a single process, pick one that’s efficient, borrows from both agile and waterfall, and is highly configurable, such as Rational Scrum or the Rational Unified Process. Both of these have the maturity to deliver large-scale projects, but also support starting small and adopting minimum ceremony.
A better awareness of what specific agile practices can and cannot accomplish is key. For example, Scrum is not a development methodology, and it cannot effectively deliver software or hardware projects unless it wraps itself around one. Yet today many organizations are employing Scrum as if it were a development methodology. I’ve even seen an organization of several hundred developers “force fed” Extreme Programming from the top down. The outcome of that particular operation: Mid-level management hid the fact that they didn’t use XP from top-level management after everyone realized what a mistake it was. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for mature standards in education and certification to evolve, but personally I’m not sitting idly by.
One of my personal pet peeves in the technology industry is a relative lack of standards and qualifications. Would you go to a doctor that didn’t have a medical degree? Would you hire an architect that didn’t have an appropriate engineering degree? Yet we hire software professionals (much less often hardware professionals) without adequate education, current qualifications, or meaningful certifications. For that matter, the proliferation of meaningless qualifications (such as Scrum Master certification) continues to weaken the industry. In the long run, we need better standards regarding education, accreditation and certification.
Understand agile methods for what they are. Keep in mind that lightweight process carries risk. Use the right tools in the right situation.
Coming full circle
If we add all of these things to agile methods, won’t we just end up using waterfall process all over again?
I don’t think so. Waterfall-based process, the original behemoth processes born out of industrial process, are widely recognized as inefficient. There are tremendous advantages to pressing forward with a merger between waterfall practices and agile practices. I hope the end result is a new generation of software and hardware development methodology — a generation that we’re just starting to see as processes such as Rational Scrum come to the fore. It’s time for development methodologies to evolve, and there’s no holding that back.