Reflections on two conferences, the Rise and Fall of Agile and Banned in Boston Redux

November 19, 2008 — Posted by Al Shalloway

This weekend was the fitting climax for my having attended and presented at two conferences in the last couple of weeks.  First, was the regional Much Ado About Agile presented by Agile Vancouver.  Second was my favorite conference of the year, SQE's Agile Development Practices.

Much Ado About Agile was a pleasant surprise.  More attendees than I thought and a great group of presenters – including David Anderson, Ken Schwaber, Sanjiv Augustine, Philipe Krutchen, David Hussman, Jim Shore and others. I'm afraid I couldn't attend as many sessions as I would have liked to but I liked what I saw. 

In particular, David Anderson's assertion that CMMI and Agile go together very well and that Kaizen, a well-known Lean concept of continuous improvement, is required for both.  This was, serendipitously confirmed at the next conference when I met someone from the CMMI group that talked about a lot of myths about CMMI – in particular the cost of keeping certification level 5.  Perhaps more on this on a later blog.

I also liked Ken Schwaber's keynote and acknowledgement that Scrum is a framework for making impediments visible but doesn't necessarily help you solve them.  Scrum is a lot more than this, of course, because the structure Scrum recommends also creates advantages right from the get go.

The speaker list at the Agile Developer Practices Conference in Orlando the next week was even more impressive, with David Anderson, David Hussman and myself flying coast to coast and now joined by too many to mention all but including Mary and Tom Poppendieck, Mike Cohn, Brian Marick, Ken Pugh, Linda Rising and apologies for the number of others I'm leaving out.

Both conferences gave me the same general impression of trends in the industry. These are:

  • We are clearly past the early adopter phase of agility (we already knew this, so further past)
  • Management is being included more in the Agile world
  • Some consulting companies making a living on Scrum are getting more and more dogmatic about it being the way to go

Past the early adopter stage is no biggie, but there seems no questioning anymore about whether one should go Agile or even what it is, but rather which flavor should I take? Not necessarily a good question.  Management's inclusion was demonstrated by the fact that much more management was there (as a percentage of the audience) than I've seen in the past.  Also, I typically ask managers which of them feel left out or even feel themselves painted as the enemy in the Agile community.  Only about one-fourth to one-third admitted to this. While still high, this is much better than it used to be (about half).  I believe this is somewhat due to the rise of Lean but more likely due to the fact that companies are discovering to scale agile you need to include management (d'oh!). 

I was distressed by what appears to me to be an increasing dogma that Scrum is all you need (I can almost hear the Beatles' refrain).  I even heard some people think David Anderson doesn't get Scrum because of the way he talks about Kanban.  Kind of like saying Einstein didn't get Newton (not trying to compare David to Einstein, although he is smart, – it's just a metaphor).

I find this very unfortunate, but hit it personally myself no later than 3 days after the conference.  We are close to getting our book Lean Software Development: Scaling Agile to the Enterprise completed.  One of the remaining chapters involves our approach to coordinating multiple teams.  My experience with Scrum-of-Scrums (or I should say, our clients experience with SoS when I ask them) is that it doesn't work well except in highly functional organizations.  Unfortunately, this doesn't describe most of the companies I run across (being a company that assists organizations to be more functional, perhaps this should be no surprise). In response to this we've come up with what we call the product integration team that is a combination of Scrum-of-Scrums with Lean management.  Anyway, I asked a question on the Scrum Development group about this and a pretty good conversation had started.  Unfortunately, Ken thought my giving people other options was (sic) "advertising your services or pointing out how Scrum doesn't work and can only work with your insights."

I find it disturbing that a discussion group about Scrum won't allow pointing out where it works (oh, this is allowed) and where it doesn't work (not allowed).    I have never claimed that my insights are required.  In fact, I am always crediting Lean-Thinking – I am merely a messenger.  This is unfortunate as it'll be hard for Scrum to grow without new ideas.  I guess that it's easier to be in denial than admit there are limitations to one's ideas.

This continued on Monday when I talked with several clients and prospects.  It was interesting that two groups in particular that were doing Scrum clearly needed to do a combination of Scrum and Kanban.  See Beyond Scrum: Lean and Kanban for Game Developers.

A further coincidence was running across Dave Rooney's "Agile Circling the Drain?" blog.  Dave refers to Jim Shore's The Decline and Fall of Agile and Bob Martin's Dirty Rotten ScrumDrels – Bob Martin wherein Bob claims the fault is ours for not being disciplined enough (which I agree with).

Whoever you agree with, we have a problem in this industry.  Whether it is Scrum, consultants, or ourselves (bummer!) we're starting to realize that just taking the low hanging fruit of applying agile management to get short term improvements is not sufficient.  In May, 2007, I wrote a blog called Challenging why (not if) Scrum works where I pointed out how having teams work on just one project, be co-located, reporting to the same manager and only following procedures that actually were required by law or didn't adversely affect team  productivity would result in a 300% improvement of team productivity. 

But team productivity may not be your problem.  Our view at Net Objectives is that you have to attend to five things:

  1. How you select your product enhancements to make sure you are applying resources to projects that will return the greatest value
  2. How you allocate resources to this work
  3. How you structure your teams to work together
  4. How your teams actually work together (e.g., Scrum)
  5. The technical expertise of  your teams.

Scrum focuses on the team, XP focuses on the team and technical expertise. Lean-Thinking can be used to improve all five. Clearly we need to expand what we mean by Agile.  It can't be just iterative development with the team figuring out how to solve their problems.  If you'd like more information on Lean, I invite you to join me in my free Online Lean Software Development course starting in December.

This blog is getting kind of long as it is, but I feel another blog coming up next week that expands on this. J

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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.


Hi Alan,

It has indeed been quite the few weeks or even months, as you have mentioned. I can't quantify it, but I'm getting a feeling that something is about to "break" in our industry which may have negative short-term consequences but positive long-term ones. Perhaps it's running in parallel with the banking and credit crisis - I'm not sure.

Kent Beck twittered yesterday about giving a talk where he was going to have to "bite the bullet" and discuss the "good and bad" he sees coming. I'm not sure what he meant, but I have this sense that Agile in general hasn't quite reached the far side of the Chasm. We're on this rickety old rope bridge that's threatening to fall apart just before we reach the other side.

I share your discomfort with the way the Scrum Development list is moderated, and the increasing dogma that's surrounding those close to the Scrum's inner circle. That's why I posted Scrum is not Enough and Call It What It Is!!! in my blog, for example - if you're using the XP practices on top of Scrum in order to be successful, don't say you're using just Scrum. Say you're using XP, dammit!!

So all that to say that I believe there's a shakeup coming in the Agile world. It may not be in the next months or even year, but I think something's coming. I like David Anderson's work, and I like even more his assertion that the Agile elite must embrace new thought leaders if we're going to continue to grow.

Dave Rooney
Mayford Technologies

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