Is Part of the Agile Community Acting Like the Waterfall Community of Old?

July 15, 2009 — Posted by Al Shalloway

When I started writing this blog I had one answer to the question it presents, but after having  written it, I have another.  I will say that my initial answer was "Yes, it feels similar."  You'll have to wait until the end to get my current answer.

I have spent the last few months trying to explain why Kanban works to people who have mostly done Scrum. I'll admit that I have been left frustrated with a sizeable number of them who just can't seem to get it.  This has left me wondering what the difficulty is.   I believe a lot of their difficulty is that many people don't believe one of the foundations of Kanban - Deming's System of Profound Knowledge and that there is a science underneath product development. This difficulty with explaining a new paradigm to people left me thinking- this is just like in the old days when we were trying to convince people that waterfall wasn't the best.  Back then many people came from the idea that if you could just specify things right you'd be better off. Until you could get people to acknowledge that wasn't possible, Agile probably looks pretty silly.  Now, it's more about getting people to believe that merely inspecting and adapting to improve your process isn't best either.  While you will always need to think and use your judgment, you must acknowledge that there are rules underneath software/product development and that you need to know what these are. Without these rules, you proceed at your own peril.  Several times when discussing these rules people have commented that it must be a large set - maybe too much to deal with. To me, the size of the rule set only tells me how much I need to know - not whether I need to know it.  I'm glad the medical profession didn't take that attitude.  Not to mention the engineers who built the bridges I drove my car over today.

Of course, my questioning our current methods goes way back.  When XP first came out I questioned why (not if) it worked.  A couple of years ago I wrote a blog questioning why (not if) Scrum worked. Neither time were these questions well received by the XP or Scrum community, respectively. Since I come from a scientific background and take questioning why things work as natural, I'll admit I've always found this as a bit odd (but also acknowledge now that that's the way it is).  When I started doing Lean training and consulting 4 years ago I started talking about how Scrum was mostly consistent with Lean's flow and you could learn how to do Scrum better if you knew Lean.  I also talked about how Lean would enable you to scale Scrum beyond a few teams.  These are fairly accepted ideas now.  But back then, it got me the reputation of bashing Scrum.  Since I admit to being mostly ignored, I got a little more vocal.  My concern is not with consultants but rather those who are looking to adopt some agile method.  Scrum claims to work for both the team and the Enterprise (without the aid of Lean). I don't think this is true (I think trying to do Scrum without Lean at the Enterprise level is like running a two engine plane on one-engine - it can be done but it isn't the best thing to do). The interesting point of all this is that while I have been called a Scrum basher my company is one of the top Scrum training companies in the world - so it should be clear that we think Scrum has value when done correctly.

It's been this resistance to learning a new model and resistance to talking about limits that led to my writing this blog. To go further, however, I have to discuss several distasteful experiences to me and several others in the industry. In writing this blog, I decided to not mention anyone's names as I did not want this to appear to be a personal vendetta.  If someone really believes these incidents haven't happened, contact me offline.

I'll start with my own personal incidents.  Somewhat troublesome is that I've been kicked off the Scrum Development user group twice for talking about Lean.  While the given reason was that I was promoting myself, examination of the user group logs would show that I was talking about Lean, not any of my offerings. Of significance was that no warnings were given - just one day I wasn't allowed there.  I have had several people tell me offline that they are afraid to talk on that user group because of the possible repercussions.  I also know several thought leaders who were warned not to get on there and even more who just feel it's not worth being in a group that doesn't allow open conversations.  I started the Lean Agile Yahoo user group after dozens (including authors and thought leaders) were banned from the Scrum development group. The message was clear - there are some things the Scrum community doesn't want to talk about.

This resistance to discuss issues includes suggesting that talking about differences between approaches is both meaningless and somehow wrong for someone to do.  This is a general kind if dismissiveness - saying conversations about how one thing would be better than another is just the wrong conversation to be having. Doctors discuss different types of treatment all the time - yet one wouldn't be considered dissing the less preferred practice.

While I find all of the preceding disturbing, I find the personal attacks on myself and other thought leaders (such as David Anderson) to be even worse.  I've been accused of just going after the money, just interested in promoting myself and being a person who just likes to attack others.  It's been said I should change my ways or leave the industry.  David Anderson has been called an embarrassment to the industry. In my opinion David has been one of the most productive thought leaders of the last few years - an embarrassment?  Ridiculous.

I have heard several CSTs tell me they have been told not to talk about Lean on the CST user group.  More disturbing is the several speakers and authors who are CSPs, CSCs of CSPOs who have been threatened with de-certification for some of their ideas in using Scrum. They are terrified of speaking out about certain practices they feel are valuable for fear of losing their certification and hence their livelihood. These are intelligent people who are not being allowed to fully contribute to the Agile community. A friend of mine (not at my company) who is one of the best coaches I know was turned down in his CSC (certified Scrum Coach) application because he knew too much Lean.

The salient thing to note is that my (and other's) ideas are typically not discussed.  I have said that Lean is a more effective way to bring Agile to the enterprise.  That's not been challenged directly - rather I have been challenged.  Some will discard my sentiments saying - oh, that's just Alan again.  But that ignores the dozens of Scrum Alliance practitioners who either are afraid to talk or just think the effort now required is too much. Again, their ideas were not discussed but rather they were told not to discuss them.

The pattern is unfortunate - it seems that there are those who don't like discussing some thing have taken one of two approaches. If they can intimidate people who are using Scrum Alliance certifications for their livelihood, they do so.  If they can't, they attack the integrity of those people they don't like (e.g., David and myself and others I haven't mentioned). 

So what's my current answer to the question "Is Part of the Agile Community Acting Like the Waterfall Community of Old?"

Its - "No, some parts of the Agile Community are acting much worse."

Next week I am going to blog "A Call To Action!"

Alan Shalloway
CEO, Net Objectives
Achieving Enterprise and Team Agility

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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