Agile Transitioning in a Chastened World

First published in The Agile Journal, 8 August 2011

"In every age of well-marked transition, there is the pattern of habitual dumb practice and emotion which is passing and there is oncoming a new complex of habit"

- Alfred North Whitehead

Agile Transitioning has become a hot topic. Ten years ago we never really heard much about it, even though the Agile "buzz" was by then in everyone's ears. Scrum and XP had seized the popular imagination and were clearly in the ascendant. Technology startups, fuelled by venture capital and spin, were espousing "Agility" even if they had no awareness of - or appetite for - the rigour that was involved. I remember it as a period in which the Agile revolution came perilously close to failing. I distinctly recall Agile Methods being hijacked and subverted by a kind of collective paramnesia. The pestilence spread across the IT industry like a virulent meme. It was a toxic definition of "Agile" that infested the skulls of far too many. Agile Methods were, quite simply and quite wrongly, being touted as the absence of process. They were not being contextualised as the presence of a different and more appropriate type of which requires a mature grasp of methodological theory, and the conscientious application of certain rules in operational practice.

So many projects got into trouble as a result, I thought this epidemic of hocus-pocus might well turn into Agile's Ebola. Technical and design debt was ramped up along with the stock options, and paid off for a while by geek heroism and a free soda policy. In company after company the message was: "Forget all that process stuff. We're all smart kids, we're Agile because we code, and we're way too cool to fail. So shut up and shovel Java!"

These days it isn't quite so bad. The pathologies of Agile failure have been demonstrated and assessed, and the management of risk is better understood. The industry seems to have become a little more prudent, and in some cases it does appear that sensible lessons have been learned. Chief among these are the need to transition towards Agile methods properly, and to plan for scalability beyond...all within a business environment of fixed costs and shrinking budgets. This takes planning, transparency, and a willingness to change practices that are currently being used. In that sense we have entered a more humble and chastened world.

I don't want to sound over-confident about the progress that is being made. The IT industry has not yet been subject to its own Sarbanes-Oxley act to match that of the financial sector. Yet the recent attention that has been paid to such matters as scalability and transitioning gives me hope that this level of oversight may not be needed. In fact I'd say that if the recent economic downturn has demonstrated an upside for Agility, then the reclamation and maturing of the Agile process has to be it.