Mostly Agile

June 26, 2012

Here’s a scenario: two women are at Starbucks, talking about how their respective weeks have been. One woman pauses, then exclaims, “I’m just so excited about parenthood! I can’t stop thinking about whether it’s going to be a girl or a boy!” “Oh my gosh! Are you pregnant?!”, the other woman responds, understandably shocked, given that her friend has yet to show any signs of a pregnancy. “Well, not completely. I’ve never really been sold on the whole pregnancy process – you know, the mood swings, the cravings, the added weight. It’s not really right for me; I’m just interested in the ‘having a child’ part. I guess you could say I’m mostly pregnant.”

As you may have already guessed, this is a metaphor. It’s also exactly what I think of whenever I hear a client describe themselves as being “mostly agile”, because maybe they like the results that Agile methodologies afford, but aren’t “sold on the process”. Maybe they do 6 week iterations, or they have a product team that can’t find any value in incremental demos if they can’t have everything all at once. Maybe they write 3 paragraphs in their Jira tickets, having completely forgotten the original point of using note cards to begin with: to provide a brief teaser of a feature that results in a real verbal conversation between two people.

Agile practitioners favor people over process; in fact, it’s the first list item in the Agile Manifesto. It doesn’t mean that they think process is useless; they merely value human interaction more, and thusly give it priority. This can be scary for a CYA-oriented product development organization – one that’s used to retaining months of Word Document revisions, emails, and chat histories, so that at the drop of a hat they can provide digital artifacts of their own due diligence, just in case everything goes side-ways. Agile can be a difficult switch, and I’m sympathetic to skeptical organizations who have only ever experienced varying gradations of success in waterfall projects. But if you’re interested in quick, iterative feedback, and if you highly value the flexibility to successively refine requirements that Agile methodologies afford, don’t try to be “mostly agile”. It doesn’t work. You’ve got to experience the process. You can’t skip the pregnancy.

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John is a serial conversationalist who spends entirely too much time engulfed in problem domains he knows nothing about and has no earthly business trying to learn. He can occasionally be found at your local coffee shop writing algorithms and trying to think deep thoughts.