The Agile wash-out effect

Photo by Peter RohlederHere is an observation that may help us with a puzzle. The puzzle is this: why was Agile adoption considered generally successful in its early years, while today it is common to see it implemented poorly?

Among other places, this question was asked earlier this week by John S. Nolan over on his blog. He noticed that too many teams are performing agile practices (TDD, pairing, stand-ups, etc) with only a shallow understanding of why they are doing them, and then taking the wrong corrective actions when things don’t go as expected. John suggested this explanation:

I think one of the reasons early adopters were successful with Agile (and I think this may be true of most new technologies) is that by the very nature of trying to learn and discover this new technique and what it meant to the team in a vacuum of definitive description (i.e. no manual), the behaviour was naturally more reflective, more listening to each other, more experimental with feedback. Once, it “crosses the chasm” and prophets bring the news to the masses the nature of adoption changes, and that form of conversation and interaction has been lost.

So here is another observation, which I first read in 2008 and has stuck with me ever since. It comes from another field: learning foreign languages. You may be aware of the language teacher Michel Thomas. He had a radical approach to learning, which included no writing, but sitting in armchairs, relaxed, and learning just verbs and some basic grammatical structure. “And then,” he said “everything else is just vocabulary”. People who have undergone his classes (which are now available more widely in audio form) proclaim remarkable — even miraculous — success. I am one of them.

There follows the inevitable cry of “why aren’t languages taught like this in our schools?” and “you educational traditionalists are ignoring evidence that can help our children”.

So I was astonished some time ago when I saw a professor of education, Chris Husbands, writing against introducing these clearly successful techniques in schools. What possible argument could he have? Well, as it turns out, really a rather good one:

…one of the problems with schools and teaching is that almost anything works somewhere. […] What you typically find is that at the pilot stage, when you have well-trained and enthusiastic pioneers, you get very good results. But when you take it mainstream, you get a wash-out of the effect. Replicating a formula across the whole education system is difficult to sustain,¬†because of the multiple competing goals of education, and the complexity of students and classrooms. If 50 teachers were trained in the Michel Thomas method, you would see a return, but the point at which you get up to 400,000 teachers, you would see a wash-out effect.

There may be a parallel here with adoption of Agile approaches, and it is close to what John was suggesting — that the enthusiasm, ethos, and subtle philosophical nuances of the early practitioners is lost as it percolates more widely.

Of course the parallel is not exact and it’s easy to find differences between Agile working and language learning. And I expect there to be other explanations of the puzzle, too. For example that Agile is too often packaged and perceived as a quick-fix approach. Or that there were probably a large number of failed early adoptions, but they just got ignored because those early adopters didn’t have such high expectations of this new and experimental approach. (That would mean the puzzle is actually a fallacy). And there will be more explanations.

Nevertheless, there may be an Agile wash-out effect. And the strong argument against a wide roll-out of a successful methodology has remained with me.

One thought on “The Agile wash-out effect

  1. Talking with Steve Freeman he reminded me of Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, “The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements”. In it he argues that mass movements grow out of their beginnings when people disaffected with their current circumstances, but are capable of imagining a better future, join a collective based on ideology. The ideologies themselves are usually generated by people who themselves are not apt to joining mass movements, and so a tension often arises between the founders and the mass movement – often surrounding the content, meaning and behaviours associated with the ideology. Ultimately, the mass reforms the ideology (to be more mass friendly) and rejects the founders, their views and beliefs.

    I think there is something of this in Agile – maybe Kent should watch out for a “Trotsky ice pick to the head” :-)

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