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The Shimmering

In the movie, Now You See Me, a certain idea was stated multiple times, phrased in various ways: "Look closely, because the closer you think you are, the less you will see." In the past decade, a lot of people have been inching closer and closer to something called "agile," and most of them are pretty sure they can see it.

Things are very different on each side of the "hump" in the diffusion of innovations curve. On the left side, the early side, where the Innovators and Early Majority adopters live, people tend to be forward-looking, open-minded, imaginative, proactive, and willing to take risks. On the right side, the late side, where the Late Majority adopters and Laggards live…well, not so much. Some people are interested in the left side, because that’s where breakthrough ideas are vetted in the proverbial fire of the (possibly over-rated) Real World. Others are interested in the right side, because that’s where methods and practices become scaled, integrated, and institutionalized to support large enterprises.

The experience of introducing "new" things is very, very different on either side of the hump; not because of the size of the organizations, as many people assume, but rather because of the difference in attitude and mindset one encounters in those two regions. Late Majority adopters and Laggards will not respond to unfamiliar things in the same way as Innovators and Early Majority adopters do. My interest in continual improvement tends to lead me toward the left.

Once "agile" crossed the chasm, which I think happened around 2006-2009-ish, I began to think of the movement as a completed experiment. I started to wonder what lessons we might take from the movement and in what direction our profession ought to go next, if we wanted to maintain the momentum we had established for continual improvement. I was interested in what was starting to happen at the left-hand edge of the curve.

Many did not appreciate this line of inquiry, despite the "agile" notion that we should question everything. Apparently, that notion applies to a strictly limited definition of "everything." Certain things are to be immune from inquiry; taken on faith, if you will.

Many felt the topic should not be broached at all, especially at a time when the majority of the "agile" community were looking for ways to standardize, productize, package, and re-sell first generation "agile" methods. Thousands upon thousands of Late Majority adopters and Laggards awaited the agile consultants, money in hand. They wanted a cookie-cutter process they could follow by rote that would qualify them for the coveted Agile Badge. This was not the time to question everything!

I wasn’t the only person who was interested in what seemed to be happening to the "agile" community, questioning the way "agile" methods tend to be implemented, taking the best bits of "agile" forward, and exploring complementary ideas from other schools of thought. It just wasn’t the main focus of the "agile" movement anymore.

At a few conferences, like this one, I tried to engage some of the Big Brains in the "agile" community in a discussion of where we should be going next. I was surprised to discover most of them were unable to look beyond the "agile" they knew and loved.

I suggested "agile" was like a small vial of cobalt-blue liquid. When we introduced "agile" to a large enterprise, it was like pouring the contents of the vial into a large pool of crystal-clear water. It seems reasonable to expect the blue liquid to diffuse into the larger pool. It would affect the color of the water in the pool, but the entire pool would never turn to the same lovely, striking shade of blue as the liquid in the small vial. "Agile" evangelists expect the entire pool to turn cobalt blue. Somehow.

Something has been nipping at the remote corners of my consciousness the past couple of years. As "agile" has become more firmly entrenched, more widely adopted, and (naturally) more diluted, proponents have become increasingly strident. They often come across as used car salesmen. Your company is on the brink of bankruptcy. Your company cannot hope to compete. Your company is just about to fail. Your only hope is to adopt "agile!" Hurry, before it’s too late! What’s been puzzling me is, Why? What’s the point of all that noisy over-selling, if "agile" has in fact crossed the chasm and become mainstream? Shouldn’t it be routine by now?

I realized I was too close to see. I took a few steps back. Sure enough, there it was: The rest of the pattern.

The same thing has happened time and again. Every new idea that is widely adopted in IT follows the same path. Its early proponents have a pristine concept of the new idea. Once the pristine concept comes into contact with reality, it changes. Both the pre-existing reality and the new idea are transformed by the process of implementing it in the Real World. Yet, every time, with every new idea, the proponents expect to see that stunning shade of cobalt blue appear. Somehow.

There is a period of time for all innovations when proponents fear the pure form of the innovation will be lost. It begins when the innovation crosses the chasm, and it fades away gradually. During that time, proponents become quasi-religious in their enthusiasm for the innovation. They try to apply the innovation to domains for which it was never intended, perhaps as a way to prove its value, and perhaps as away to try and keep it looking "new" and attractive.

The last Next Big Thing before "agile" was RUP – the Rational Unified Process. RUP is a powerful and robust framework that brought the software development industry forward, in its time. At the time when it became clear that "agile" was going to become the Next Big Thing, proponents of RUP became very vocal about how their favorite framework could be implemented in an "agile" way. Did they fear RUP would become obsolete and people would stop using it? That didn’t happen. What did happen was that people kept what was useful from RUP, and continue to use those things to this day. But it isn’t "pure" RUP. RUP contributed to the general color of the water in the pool, but the pool didn’t transform into a pure shade of RUP. Eventually the noise faded away.

The last Next Big Thing before RUP was the Spiral methodology, or Spiral model. You can save me a bit of typing if you’ll just re-read the previous paragraph, substituting "Spiral" for "RUP." and "RUP" for "agile." Then do the same for V-Model. I think you can see where this is going.

The same thing is happening today. Substitute "lean" for "agile". Substitute "agile" for "RUP". Welcome to 2013.

We started with a movie analogy, so let’s end with one, too. In The Shining, writer Jack Torrance gets caught up in the agenda of a bunch of spirits left over from some violent episode in the distant past. His image ends up as part of a portait of the people who were involved. He became part of the portrait. The portrait became part of him. Both were changed. So it is with "agile" adoption.

What the evangelists have forgotten is that "agile" isn’t the point. It never was. The point is to pursue continual improvement, wherever it may lead. In 2001 the pursuit led us to "agile," and it was a Good Thing. So good, apparently, that some people would like to stop and rest there for a while. As for me, "agile" has taken me to a place where I can see a new horizon, and I’m curious to see what I might find there. I expect it will lead me to a view of yet another horizon, rather than an Ultimate Answer. I hope so.