An Experiment in Scotch

"I write to discover what I believe." Michael Lopp on Twitter

Is Agile The New Waterfall

I ran across this pre­sen­ta­tion claim­ing that agile is the new water­fall, that by fol­low­ing some method of agile dog­mat­i­cally, you are merely sub­sti­tut­ing one dogma for another and you have failed to gain any learn­ing or under­stand­ing. While this may very well be true in cer­tain cases, it reminds me of the open­ing line to Anna Karen­ina: All happy fam­i­lies are alike. Every unhappy fam­ily is unhappy in its own way. Many peo­ple say that you should take the pieces of agile that work for you, use them and dis­card the rest. If you’re deal­ing with a team that is already func­tional, this works. Teams that are already highly func­tional can take any process piece­meal and work it out because they are already func­tional. Teams that are dys­func­tional are dys­func­tional in hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent ways and allow­ing these teams to choose what parts of any method­ol­ogy they imple­ment leads them to rein­force their dys­func­tions instead of fix­ing them.

For teams that are highly dys­func­tional, pick­ing and choos­ing pieces of any method­ol­ogy will undoubt­edly result in fail­ure, not because they chose pieces of water­fall or pieces of Six Sigma or pieces of agile. It will fail because they are already dys­func­tional and the best way a method­ol­ogy can help dys­func­tional teams is by apply­ing the entire method­ol­ogy, sort­ing out later what pieces do and do not work once under­stand­ing has been achieved. We, as pro­po­nents of what­ever method­ol­ogy we pre­fer, do these teams a dis­ser­vice when we allow them believe that doing pieces that “fit” will lead them to greater function.

Dog­mas aren’t cre­ated to imme­di­ately impart under­stand­ing. That only comes wis­dom and expe­ri­ence. Music stu­dents play all scales over and over, dog­mat­i­cally. They do that because even­tu­ally, that dog­matic approach will lead to higher under­stand­ing about their craft. If a music stu­dent looks at scales and says “I’m only going to play the C Scale”, they will never gain the abil­ity to under­stand how know­ing all scales makes them a bet­ter player. The stu­dent must play all scales to gain the most ben­e­fit and under­stand­ing. In fact, music stu­dents should play their weak­est scales more in order to improve more. In the same way, I believe apply­ing any method­ol­ogy in whole to dys­func­tional teams has the poten­tial to do the same thing, more quickly than doing it piecemeal.

Method­olo­gies aren’t designed for func­tional teams. They don’t NEED them. Method­olo­gies are designed for dys­func­tional teams, ones that need help not because of their method­ol­ogy but because of under­ly­ing issues with the team or the envi­ron­ment. Tak­ing the pieces “that work for you” from any process results in only focus­ing on your strengths and avoid­ing your weak­nesses. Do that will never lead to suc­cess will never lead to a stronger team, only a more unbal­anced team.


  1. Sheik Yerbouti

    April 30, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    I tried to read this, but I got bored and only read a few parts of each paragraph.

  2. I find that peo­ple that advise a strict and absolute inter­pre­ta­tion of agile are those that are the most inex­pe­ri­enced in it. They lack the skills to know what works and what doesn’t, so they merely fol­low it dog­mat­i­cally. It’s all they know how to do. What is your expe­ri­ence with agile that is pro­vid­ing the basis for your assertions?

  3. Scotch Drinker

    May 1, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Sheik: I cater to the ADHD crowd.

    Bob: So if I under­stand cor­rectly, in your expe­ri­ence, the most inex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple in agile tend to dog­mat­i­cally fol­low all aspects of a par­tic­u­lar fla­vor of agile. Is that cor­rect? If so, I’d be inter­ested in hear­ing about your expe­ri­ences because that’s the oppo­site of what I’ve seen, both in agile and in gen­eral. In my expe­ri­ence, a team new to agile picks and chooses the pieces that fit in their cur­rent process, aka dysfunction.

    Plus, I’m not sure you’re really dis­agree­ing with me. Peo­ple who are the most expe­ri­enced in agile with the abil­ity to know what works for their teams tend to already be on func­tion­ing teams. I feel like that’s just sup­port­ing my point.

    Teams that are new to agile need to dog­mat­i­cally fol­low it until they gain the expe­ri­ence to pick and choose what pieces work best for them, espe­cially if they don’t have a coach or men­tor which is true for prob­a­bly 95% of them. Advis­ing a dys­func­tional team to pick and choose what pieces of agile they think will work is a recipe for dis­as­ter exactly because they don’t have the expe­ri­ence to KNOW what works.

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