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Random musings on the Agile Manifesto

As of February, 2001 the authors of the Agile Manifesto were all advanced in their careers and were already well known as top-tier software professionals. The individuals are quite different from each other; different experiences, different perspectives, different political views, different levels of formal education, different ways of approaching problems, very different personalities.

Notwithstanding their differences, they have one thing in common, and I think it may have a bearing on the tone of the Manifesto, as well as on a peculiar incongruity that I’ll mention later. The common factor: They are middle-class white males raised in a West European or North American cultural context.

Come to think of it, they had something else in common, too. They were of generations who experienced the Death March management approach in the IT field during the 20th century. They didn’t like it and they did something about it.

Whatever other changes they may have hoped to see by the 2020s, we can at least credit them with contributing to a positive shift in the working experience of IT professionals. I know people with 25 years experience who have never experienced a Death March, and whose most stressful project called for just 45 hours a week for a few weeks. That wasn’t the story for IT professionals in the 1970s-1980s. Even if today’s corporate “agile” bears little resemblance to the Real Deal, the Agile movement (along with other things) has had a positive effect.

A cultural blind spot

When I’ve worked with people in other cultures, they’ve sometimes told me they appreciated the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, but they didn’t quite understand why the document was necessary. To them, it was natural to work that way. Why a Grand Statement of the Obvious?

I wonder if the authors saw the need to make a Grand Statement because they were raised in cultures that score very high on the individualism dimension of Geert Hofstede’s model of national cultures. Agile values and principles strongly emphasize collaboration and teamwork, transparency, psychological safety, the courage to show one’s “weaknesses,” self-organization vs. formal hierarchy, and all that jazz.

These things may be obvious and natural in some cultures, but they are not natural in highly individualistic ones. There was a need – whether real or perceived – to grab people by the collar and shake them to get their attention, and then explain to them the meaning of Agile values.

There was an expectation that people would “resist” or at least doubt the effectiveness of the proposed methods. We needed to craft a “sales pitch” for management to convince them that it was okay for humans to be human. And maybe the expectation was well founded in an individualistic culture…but the grabbing and shaking is unnecessary in most other cultures.

So are the jargon, training, and certifications. Practically the whole “agile” industry that emerged following the Manifesto’s publication is fundamentally unnecessary. Frankly, I’m bemused by the amount of money companies spend on it all, when what they really need to do is think about different ways to carry out their work and then choose a way that’s straightforward rather than convoluted.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, most companies seem to prefer convoluted ways of working that go against the grain of basic humanity. I’m at a loss to understand how they can possibly believe such an approach could ever bear fruit.

The crux of the “agile” thing is that people ought to work in a way that is natural for human beings. Sprinkle in a bit of Lean Thinking (another Grand Statement of the Obvious), and you’re all set. There’s no need for it to be any more complicated than that.

Well, unless you’re from a highly individualistic culture. Then, it seems, it’s very hard to be human.

A happy tale

Thinking of that, I’m reminded of the best team I’ve ever worked with. I was engaged as an “agile coach” for a team of seven. The team comprised five women – from Vietnam, India, Korea, China, and Japan – and two men – a Bolivian and a Black American. Conspicuously absent: Middle-class white males raised in a West European or North American cultural context.

That team picked up on an “agile” way of working without stress or difficulty. There was none of the “storming and norming” stuff that many agilists assume is inevitable. They worked together seamlessly, despite having no native culture in common, and with six out of seven using English as a second language. They smoothly improved their process from two-week iterations to one-week iterations to a continuous flow process, almost entirely self-guided through step-by-step improvements. It took them about four months from zero to continuous flow.

Aw, gee, mom!

You might be saying, okay, that’s a nice story, but what does it have to do with the “tone” of the Agile Manifesto? I’m not claiming this was the authors’ intent – in fact, I doubt it was – but the document reminds me of the whine of an adolescent boy who has been asked to take out the trash or clean his room, replying, “Aw, gee, mom! I’m busy. Can’t I do my chores later?”

I can almost hear certain of the authors responding to that sort of comment. No, that’s not it. The Agile movement was intentionally counter-management; not counter-mom or averse to chores. We cultivated relationships between developers and customers, side-stepping the middle management layer that had become a hindrance to delivery of value. We wanted to improve the work experience of developers, not unlike how the labor movement improved the experience of workers by organizing them. And so on.

I respect that view and I understand their intent. As a member of the same broad age cohort and the same general culture as they – middle-class white male American who started work in the 1970s – I didn’t see the Manifesto in that way at first. I had to learn to see it from the outside, like a goldfish who somehow escapes his prison and sees, for the first time, the fishbowl in its larger context. “How’s the water, boys?”

A peculiar incongruity

Most people today learned about “agile” from books, websites, presentations, training classes, and consultants. My age cohort learned about it from the originators and from their colleagues who didn’t happen to attend the meeting, but were of similar mind. It’s probably the main reason we’re generally disappointed in the way things have turned out.

I’ve met several of the authors and have worked a bit with a few on occasion. I say that not to sell myself as an “agilist,” although many people do that sort of thing, but to clarify that when I see a list of their names, I visualize them as human beings, with all the complexity and inconsistency that implies.

Today, most people who see a list of the names just see a bunch of letters on a screen or page. They don’t connect the names with the individuals. They see the Agile Manifesto as a standalone “thing,” stripped of its history and context. Stripped of its humanity, one could say. That’s not a criticism. I guess it’s normal. Maybe it’s better that way, as I will suggest in a moment.

Anyway, three of the Manifesto authors (that I know of) take the individualism dimension further than Hofstede himself may have imagined possible. They’re in the extreme category that says things like “taxation is theft” and who don’t believe they owe their fellow countrymen anything at all, or that they have benefited in any way from “the system” or “the collective.” They are self-spawned hero-gods, each a self-sufficient world in a skin-sack.

One of the traditional aspects of IT work that the Agile movement sought to overturn is the idea of hero-gods of software. We learned self-organizing teams of multi-skilled peers is the way to get the most value from technical staff on a sustainable basis. As we learned how to function effectively as coaches and mentors, we were taught the importance of cultivating empathy, humility, and curiosity about the people we were helping and the problems they were facing.

tl;dr – It works.

The incongruity is just this: The hero-gods of Agile don’t behave in any way consistently with the values and principles they wrote into the Agile Manifesto. They wouldn’t recognize empathy, humility, and curiosity if they drowned in a vat of the stuff. When you pair-program with them, they dominate rather than collaborate.

They assume they hold all the Magic Keys and you are an empty vessel waiting to be filled with their wisdom. At times they are so arrogant it’s hard to stay in the same room with them for more than five minutes. This observation applies only to a few of the authors, yet the contrast between what they do and what they wrote is striking, if not downright jarring.

In a sense, it’s a good thing that time, the bandwagon effect, the greed of big consultancies, the dull gray monotony of certification, and the insistent, debilitating corporate standardization of “agile” have blurred the focus on the individual authors. The message is probably clearer if you don’t know too much about them, after all. The document speaks for itself, and it has very good things to say.

Through all the noise of clamoring to “be Agile,” it’s a shame more people didn’t pay attention to the plain words. One can only speculate about what the world of software would be like today if they had.