Agile is not the default

Photo by Russell TrowIn my last post I listed a number of practices we might adopt if we genuinely wanted to bring our Agile beliefs to a wider audience. But looking at the list it’s not easy to see what makes those things special. Are they not desirable in all circumstances? Is the list not just common sense? Come to think of it, is Agile not just common sense, as someone once suggested to me?

Here’s the list again: Embrace change; focus on value; partnership; face to face; tight, effective feedback; risk reduction through incremental progress.

To some extent, yes, everyone would want those things. We could apply Simon Hoggart’s bullshit test to see if they are worth remarking on. That is, if the opposite is clearly ridiculous then the thing itself is hot air. Reject change? Loose, ineffective feedback, anyone? Probably not…

But what Agile does differently is put those things at the heart of the work, rather than making them possible but difficult. If I look back on my projects before Agile, change was difficult, and what we tended to produce was what was contracted for, not what would have been best. Centring a project around contracts and documentation lends a very different flavour to the proceedings.

If there is one thing that the items on the above list have in common it’s this: a recognition that the best laid plans are worthless when they make contact with the real world.

  • The first item, embracing change, is at the heart of this.
  • Focusing on value exposes quickly how much the planned ideas contribute to the purpose of the work.
  • Partnership emphasises that change with other players is difficult if you are not working genuinely together — even subtle changes in emphasis or focus.
  • Similarly for face to face communication, which is a good vehicle for partnership on a more personal level.
  • Tight, effective feedback is the governance mechanism used to recognise and correct quickly any differences between plans and reality.
  • Risk reduction through incremental progress is the means to enable that.

All those practices are good in any circumstances, but if they aren’t put at the heart of our approach then we will make it much more difficult for our plans to achieve what we want. Unfortunately this is not the default.

While I was planning this blog post a good example popped up on my radar. My former colleague Mike Bracken, now leading digital at the Cabinet Office, wrote a post about how delivery continues to be vital to ensure effective governmental services. It’s a great summary of how — in the status quo — planning trumps the delivery of worthwhile and cost-effective services. Mike’s point is, of course, the delivering something quickly cuts through excessive planning and enables decisions to be informed by reality.

Sadly, inefficient government is just the typical organisation scaled up and unchecked. A mechanism that enables easy correction of plans against reality helps avoid that. And in the end it doesn’t matter whether you call it Agile, or common sense, or something else. But it certainly can’t be taken for granted.