Is Agile a mystery?

Posted by Doc
Sep 02 2009

Over the past few weeks, in between preparing for Agile2009, I was preparing to deliver some Agile training to a company’s product owners and project managers. I was told that they’d been doing various Agile practices for as much as a year.  This made me curious as to why we’d be delivering a course on Agile Fundamentals.

After all, if they’ve been doing stuff for a year, I thought, shouldn’t they have some of the fundamentals firmly in mind?

Nonetheless, skepticism firmly in hand, I prepared myself to deliver to what might be a knowledegable and, perhaps, challenging group.

Much to my surprise – although it shouldn’t surprise me – these folks have piecemeal knowledge of certain practices, and seem to mostly lack a solid grasp of the underlying principles of Agile. While I don’t think that the Agile Manifesto is a bible, I do think that it’s both required reading and deserves some thought. The implications are profound, once you start thinking about them and trying to understand what they mean for an organization.

How can it be that people have been doing standups and iterations and estimating and story cards for 6 – 12 months, and don’t have a firm grasp of the why of what they’re doing?

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe most people don’t have any need to understand the philosophy or principles or subtleties of what they’re doing, and are happy to just learn the what and the how.

I’m still a bit baffled. The subtleties of what makes Agile be what it is are what excite me. Yes, I do get excited about pairing and standups and iterations and IPMs and retrospectives and all the other stuff we do. And I also get excited by the understanding and the “cultural shift” (as one attendee put it) that goes along with Agile adoption.

After all, Agile is clearly not just about the practices and methodologies. It’s about the discipline and the attitude changes and the mental shifts in things like code ownership and transparency. How can you go from the dark ages of Waterfall, individual code ownership, controlled communication, and defensiveness to Agility without being affected by all of those changes in profound ways? How can you make the shift from maybe-doing-unit-testing-a-little-bit-after-the-fact to TDD/Test-First and not see that there’s more going on than just the practices?


I guess the opportunity to share that excitement that comes with the transformation is part of what drives me to do coaching and training and facilitation.  If I can see just one person get it, then it’s all worth it.

It seems that you can take the man out of motivational speaking, but you can’t take the motivational speaking out of the man. 😉

7 Responses

  1. Interesting observations. I’ve always wondered what it takes to be considered “Agile”, and I don’t think I have a satisfactory answer. These days it seems that people who stand up during a meeting think that they are “Agile”.

  2. Kevin Baribeau says:

    I think one of the problems of Agile is that it’s too easy to think you understand everything that’s going on. It really is more than just standups and TDD, but it seems like a lot of people stop there.

    There’s a “movement” trying to address this. See

  3. Mark Needham says:

    Interesting post although I think this is often the way that people learn new stuff.

    What you’ve described is quite close to the way that I have learnt about Agile so far.

    I did read the manifesto and Kent Beck’s book to start with but I don’t think I really understood what they were talking about until I’d worked on some projects using some of the practices and then a while later learning why we use the practices in the first place.

    I think it all makes a lot more sense once you understand the reasons that it came about in the first place like you point out but it’s useful to try out some concrete practices first before that type of thing will make sense to you.

  4. PM Hut says:

    I guess for a lot of PMs out there, it is a mystery. Most of the new Project Managers are getting the PMP, that has no mention whatsoever of cyclical Project Management. Agilists are mainly people who got there by experience.

  5. […] I read with great interest, the blog by steven list about Facilitation patterns (its also about a whole lot of other things Agile related) […]

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