Where are all the Agile success stories?

Daniel Mezick confronts the elephant in the “agile” room in his post, Deviation from the Norm: “If current approaches actually worked well, then by now, thousands of organizations would have reached a state of self-sustaining, “freestanding” agility. Clearly, that is not the case.”

Pondering the question, several possible reasons for this result (or lack of) occurred to me. These are speculative and based on my own experience and observations.

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The future casts its shadow across the past

I don’t know the origin of that saying. When I first heard it, it was presented as ancient Chinese wisdom. In the West we often attribute pearls of wisdom to some named or unnamed ancient Chinese philosopher. I suspect many of the attributions are not historically accurate. In any case, the saying suggests — correctly, I think — that by examining the past we can make some predictions about the future…within limits, of course.

One of the hot topics of discussion in software development circles these days is the question of how we can make useful predictions about the future for purposes of planning software delivery activities. The subject turns out to be trickier than I had, um, predicted.

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It’s a question of its context

I read an article in Harvard Business Review today entitled “I won’t hire people who use poor grammar,” by Kyle Wiens. Wiens assesses job candidates, in part, on the basis of their use of English grammar. He goes so far as to administer a written grammar test to all applicants.

Amusingly enough, the website generated a URL by truncating the title to “i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.” I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t, either, unless using poo happened to be part of the job description. “Seeking howler monkeys for stock floor trading positions. Throw your résumé against the wall and see if it sticks.”

Um, okay, where was I? Oh, yeah. Is Wiens’ approach excessive? Ah…wait a second. Should that be, Weins’s? Does it depend on whether you’re in the US or UK? Does it depend on which form your fourth-grade teacher thought was “the rule?” <sigh/> I guess my chances of passing Wiens’ grammar test are low. Oh, wait…is it okay to use faux XML in a narrative? I’m so confused!

Anyway, comments on the article run the gamut from strong approval to strong disapproval. I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with Wiens.

Let’s start with the points of disagreement. That’s usually more fun.
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BBUF: Big Budget Up Front

The packaging of ideas represented by “agile” includes elements pertaining to organizational culture and elements pertaining to processes and practices. Although many of us would like to see organizations adopt useful elements in both areas holistically, in my experience it is not the case that the two are welded together. Instead, cultural aspects and mechanical aspects affect work flow and outcomes differently and independently.

In most organizations that have adopted “agile” methods, people have embraced a subset of the mechanical elements of “agile” development, but they have no understanding of the cultural aspects and, in many cases, no interest. Yet, I think it’s fair to say they are “using” or “doing” agile development. It’s definitely possible to employ some of the mechanical aspects of “agile” development in the context of an otherwise-traditional organizational structure and culture. It’s happening all over the world right now. Because of this reality, I often use the word “agile” to refer only to the mechanical aspects. I sometimes run afoul of agile practitioners because of this.

When I suggest that the use of “agile” methods does not automatically mean we are doing adaptive development, some agile practitioners protest. Continue reading

Thor’s hammer had a name, so why can’t mine?

Mjölnir.

Thor’s hammer was called Mjölnir. Cool name for a problem-solving device.

Liza Wood commented on a recent post of mine in which I lamented the overuse of the word, "agile," and the ill effects of that overuse. She wrote, in part:

I completely understand why you have become disenchanted with word "Agile", but I am sticking with it for now. For the majority it’s still at least a starting point to have a pragmatic conversation about product development (not just software).

I wonder about that. Is the word really a starting point for pragmatic conversation? Different people have had different experiences with that. My experience has been that people already have some pretty firm ideas about the implications of the word, "agile." A recurring pattern is that a change agent goes into an organization and happily proclaims, "Oh, boy! We’re going Agile!" To his/her surprise, the people in the organization do not react to the proposition joyfully. The word "agile" connotes Happy Things to the change agent. What does it connote to other people? Why are they not happy to hear it?

Ron Jeffries’ classic article, We Tried Baseball and It Didn’t Work, suggests an answer.

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Words don’t mean what they don’t mean

<rant>

Words don’t have firm, unambiguous, unchanging meanings. This is a source of some frustration for me. The same word can have multiple meanings. Sometimes there are context-dependent meanings. Sometimes there are shades of meaning conveyed by tone of voice. People can have multiple interpretations of the same basic meaning of any given word. Clear communication is more challenging than it might appear to be.

In the field of software development, we have an unfortunate habit of re-using old words to represent new concepts. Maybe it’s because we value re-use (whatever that means). The English word, agile already had a meaning before software developers came along and started using it for something else. A ballerina is agile. A faun is agile. That’s easy to understand. Now, software development can be agile, too (whatever that means).
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The problem with success (and failure)

This morning I noticed a copy of the good old Cone of Uncertainty on the wall of a cubicle at a client’s office. It reminded me of Laurent Bossavit’s ebook-in-progress, The Leprechauns of Software Engineering, in which he challenges several of the myths or assumptions that have become traditional lore in the software industry, including that one.

Laurent writes,

What is odd, to any experienced software engineer, is that the Cone diagram is symmetrical, meaning that it is equally possible for an early estimate to be an over-estimate or an underestimate. This does not really square with widespread experience of software projects, which are much more often late than they are early.

Er…wait a second. Isn’t that very assertion an example of “anecdotal evidence?” Is it another Leprechaun? Who says projects are more often late than early?

Silly Dave! Everyone knows who said that. It was the Standish Group, in their famous Chaos Report of 1994. Slightly more than 70% of IT projects fail. That’s why every office building in the industrialized world is on fire, and white-collar refugees are streaming from the cities, leaving their belongings behind except for whatever personal electronic devices they can carry.

Only…they aren’t.
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