Quo Vadis, Agile..?
24 March 2020
Posted by: John Williams
There is a touch of angst in some quarters of the agile world...
“What is agile? Why do we need agile? Are we agile yet?”.
The breezy confidence of ‘Agile is the solution to our problems’, has given way to an uncomfortable, squirming vagueness. This cautious hesitancy is not the sort of thing we expect from a business practice, a social movement, a religion, or the occasional cult. Not that any elements of the agile world could possibly qualify for the latter, of course...
Anyway, this naturally made me wonder, ‘Why is this happening?’, and not being given to cautious hesitancy myself, I came up with an answer.
In 2020, ‘agile’ – as in the 2001 Agile Manifesto – is still a teenager. Any of us that can remember being 19 will be aware that ‘angst’ is a defining characteristic of that and surrounding years (and those who are looking forward to 19 – be prepared). So in a way, the current self-questioning insecurity is neither unexpected nor likely to be permanent.
Of course, that ‘self-questioning insecurity’ is not universal. There are still those out there who think that agile is a solution – indeed that agile has grown and expanded and improved to be the definitive solution. For them, I have only these wise words from an anonymous intellect: ‘You can be absolutely sure, and still be wrong’.
It’s important to remember that agile doesn’t have a formal set of rules, regulations, guidelines or protocols – it has the Agile Manifesto, an excellent and ground-breaking treatise giving rise to a whole load of derivative methodologies. Thus, the challenge of interpretation, not unknown even with more prescriptive – or proscriptive – religions, is almost inevitable for agilists.
The dilemma for agile is that it tries to be the solution to a problem. And as they say in parts of America, ‘that dog don’t hunt’.
For every problem there is a solution that is simple, elegant and wrong. To understand why, we need to understand what a problem is.
A problem is a thing that has a solution. (Okay, admittedly a mathematical problem sometimes might not, yet for the moment let us imagine a problem as a thing that is amenable to a solution).
If a problem is difficult, I may not be able to solve it, yet as long as it is doable, someone can.
If a problem is demanding, I may not have the energy or patience to solve it, yet someone can.
If a problem is complicated, my inadequate brain may not be able to grasp the intricacy of it, yet someone out there surely can.
Crucially then, whether a problem is difficult, demanding or complicated, a problem is still a thing that can be solved – and there’s the rub. The vital issue for agile is not the word ‘problem’ – it is the word ‘thing’.
Complexity is not a problem
Someone once tried to explain to me the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’. Essentially, they said: ‘that which is complicated may be difficult or demanding, yet if the input is done right, the output will be what is expected’. Basically, complicated is still predictable. Just like a car – complicated, yet (as long as the wheels don’t fall off) predictable.
Where a situation is complex, it is not possible to accurately forecast the output from a given input. In short, the complex is unpredictable. Just like the traffic in which cars are driven – complex, and (because it depends on the interaction of people with people) unpredictable.
Complexity, unlike a problem, is not a thing that can be ‘solved’.
What’s the problem for which agile is the solution?
When we say ‘agile is the solution to a problem’, we misunderstand the nature of the ‘problem’.
Agility is a characteristic of people, not of things. A brick cannot be agile. A car cannot be agile. Even a tennis racket, redolent of agility in every aspect, cannot itself be agile.
People are (or are not) agile, literally and metaphorically – and people are complex. So, if we want to achieve that state of grace known as agility, we need to do it through people, and people are not a problem.
No, seriously. People are not difficult or demanding or complicated, and therefore ‘solvable’. They are complex and therefore unpredictable. Thus, if agility is a function of people, and complexity is a function of people, and agility is a function of complexity, then – bingo! Agility is not a problem to be solved – it is a complex state to be achieved and maintained.
So far, so what?
Well, we worry about complexity – it’s hard. And if complexity is A Bad Thing, then agility may help as an antidote to it (antidote, noun: something that counteracts an unpleasant feeling or situation). In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, that’s worth knowing. So, far from trying to ‘solve the problem’ of complexity, we need to wrap our heads around how we arrive at, and maintain, agility.
So there we have it. To be or to do, that was the question – and now we have the answer.
We can’t do global. We can’t do digital. We can’t do agile. These are all things which we must become, and it is mindset, not methodology, that changes who we are. Once we realise that, we can put aside the quest for the ‘right’ agile ‘solution’ to our ‘problems’, and focus on acquiring the power that resides in confident agility.