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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Agile Bullshit: Agile Thought-Leaders Know It All

Agile

I guess you’ve been in this situation: listening to a presentation of one of so called thought-leaders. It is a good presentation – after all, the person you’re listening to wouldn’t be considered a though-leader if he wasn’t able to deliver decent presentation. So you sit there and think “Heck, that’s how things should look like. He knows what he’s talking about. After all he’s a thought-leader. He can be trusted.”

Now imagine, exactly the same things are told you by your colleague next desk. This average girl who doesn’t speak much but is kind of obsessed about self-development and often reads all this strange stuff about project management. What would be your reaction? “You must be kidding me. That’s not going to work. Not in our organization. Oh, this may work in some of these start-ups, but not in our shop. Besides that all these things are just wasting of time.”

Same thing said – different reaction. Why? Well it’s all about authority. Your colleague has none and one of industry celebrities already leads the pack. But authority isn’t something I want to discuss now. You may be surprised but I believe you can actually choose wiser in the latter situation.

I’m going to be iconoclastic for a moment. Thought-leaders are the same people as we are. OK, they did something which brought fame, i.e. they were hanging around when agile manifesto was being signed or something. But since then they probably quit their jobs and started a consulting or training company selling their name and fame.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that’s a bad thing. I’d do exactly the same if I were in their shoes (and I’d really like to be in their shoes). By the way if you want me to quit the job and become outrageously overpriced independent consultant feel free to help in spreading the word about my work here on Software Project Management – I would really appreciate that. But I digress. Starting a consulting business actually is a kind of win-win. There are people willing to pay a guy for sharing his knowledge and he is a knowledgeable person indeed. The problem is he becomes a bit disconnected with real work.

Consulting is theoretical job. You go somewhere, you tell how things should look like in ideal world, you cash your check and you’re done. At the same time people you’ve taught take the knowledge, try to apply it in their specific environment and struggle to get any decent results. They just don’t work in ideal world. And their work is all about practice, not theory.

Don’t treat thought-leaders as they knew it all because they simply don’t. They can have a lot more knowledge and experience than your colleague or yourself, but they likely know nothing about specifics of your situation. In your unique case they may know nothing.

All posts of The Carnival of Agile Bullshit.

in: project management, software business

11 comments… add one

  • David Bland March 15, 2010, 1:01 pm

    I tend to throw out crazy ideas at times, but I suppose I’m not at “thought leader” status yet because people call me out on them: http://bit.ly/b1i3Cl

    The thing with consulting is that it is tough to convince your client that you have any skin in the game. One way to do so, it so play an embedded ScrumMaster/Agile Coach for an extended period of time.

    That tends to introduce other complexities such as:
    – People will undermine you
    – It is longer than most consultants prefer
    – You can get “pickled”

    It’s a delicate agile carnival tightrope act between adapting your real world experience to new situations & pushing the envelope.

    Looking forward to your other articles on this subject!

    -David

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 15, 2010, 1:08 pm

    David,

    I like your approach and if I think about environment I’d like to consult in I’d look for similar to your description. On the other hand I’m aware of problems you point. Once you’re a colleague people don’t want to hear your advice any more.

    Anyway, that’s not a standard consulting path. Consultants/coaches usually put themselves in a position of short-term teachers – today they are here and tomorrow they’ll be somewhere else and people would have to deal with their problems by their own.

    It’s understandable why people easier accept standard consultancy – it’s easier to ignore it and work as before.

  • David Wright March 15, 2010, 1:17 pm

    If a particular consultant’s theories do not work in practice, he or she should do what it takes to make them work, or give back their fee.

    A good consultant ensures that they never get into that situation; they figure out how to make their theories successful and repeatable across diverse situations.

    If not, time to get a regular job again.

    David Wright
    Requirements Consultant

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 15, 2010, 2:07 pm

    David,

    I’m yet to see this kind of point in any consulting deal. To be honest I don’t expect to see it anytime soon.

    I don’t even say solutions brought by a consultant must be wrong. But to be honest: do people pay you to fight with office politics or to show them the way to improve their work? I guess the latter. And how long it takes you to stop trying to overcome existing order?

    Anyway, it wasn’t the point. Actually the point was consultants are often wrong. What they see is usually just a surface. And they sure have a lot of solutions, unfortunately these solutions are rarely tailored to the specific situation.

    I can give you an example – I’m learning my current organization for a year already and there are still things new for me. And my opinion about the company has changed much after about half a year of working there. Note: I’m rather privileged when it comes to access to information. Now, how long is typical coaching/consulting spell? And besides consulting on top level how much less information you get access to?

    Take it to the next level – one of industry thought-leaders. They don’t even take the time to learn the organization and they still serve you recipes to heal it. Should they give back their money if their recipes don’t work? I didn’t think so. But on the other hand we shouldn’t expect they will always work either.

  • Matt Barcomb March 15, 2010, 7:11 pm

    This is a really good article, and I agree with the ideas and themes presented here. It’s not like Agile Thought-Leaders are the only bright people in the world. They are still just people, and were, at one point just regular Joes just like me or you.

    However, I also see some of this as a slippery slope. This line of thinking should not be used to just write off what thought-leaders say simply because it doesn’t seem to fit your current context. They may not know it all, but I would say they know a lot (else they wouldn’t be thought leaders). Also, many of them do not let their craft go stale, and many also play the role of coach, staying around to help change organizations or demonstrate principles at work.

    I guess all I’m saying is that people need to make sure they do their due diligence to learn and understand both agile and their organization. I’ve seen too many people that were too quick to say things wouldn’t or couldn’t work, and I’ve heard arguments like the ideas proposed in this article misused to justify their position.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 16, 2010, 1:56 am

    Matt,

    I don’t say people should just ignore authorities or thought-leaders. If someone uses “they don’t work here” argument just to ignore advice which otherwise would be good that’s a problem of defending status quo.

    I don’t say though-leaders know nothing either. As you write they know a lot, otherwise we wouldn’t care about them. It’s just we should choose a right perspective to look at what they bring to us.

    I neither share over-skeptical nor uncritical approach. Both are quite popular. We came to the point where skeptics usually find adversaries and discussion about changes in their organizations is in this way or another ongoing. On the other hand I often see people spreading the word about new cool thing telling you how great it is without even one thought about specific of their audience.

    What drove me even more to write this is hearing one of thought leaders using from time to time the same approach. If someone is going to convince me to their ideas using oversimplifications instead of focusing on specifics of my situation it just isn’t going to work.

  • Szymon Pobiega March 17, 2010, 11:32 pm

    The interesting fact about agile thought leaders is that they have literally no competition.
    There aren’t any no non-agile thought leaders. Among about 50 software blogs I read regularly there is ZERO alter (I don’t want to say anti)-agile blogs. No matter if someone accept it or not, software development practices are tightly connected to PM methodologies. In fact I wouldn’t know how to write solid OO code in a waterfall project. Does anybody know? I don’t think so. Practices such as automatic testing and refactoring to name the few were designed to work well in agile environments. They won’t be as effective if you aren’t agile.
    So, either teach me how to code software in non-agile way or agree on agile PM methodologies. There is no third solution if software quality is to be maintained at high level.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 18, 2010, 2:08 am

    Szymon,

    You raise an interesting point: agile crowd is loud indeed and people we consider though-leaders lead the agile bandwagon. However if look for alter-agile voices count me in. I don’t say “agile is good, no matter what.” You won’t hear me praising any specific agile method as a silver bullet. I won’t say Kanban is the best even though I use it now and in this specific situation it works great.

    And talking about that: I’m very far from merging best software engineering practices with agile approach to manage projects. Almost none of practices we consider today as agile were invented along with agile methodologies. I used automatic tests before I even heard about agile. I was refactoring the code when I worked with old-school PM methods.

    I’ll give you a good example – you’ve read “Code Complete” written by Steve McConnell almost for sure. Most of engineering practices you have in your toolbox today is described there. The book was written long before agile has launched. Does it mean Steve’s ideas didn’t work back then?

    People wrote, and are writing, great code in non-agile projects all the time. Agile and good code aren’t bonded.

  • Larry July 29, 2012, 2:05 pm

    My client was sold on agile. They f#$ the dog for 3 years, and then expected 5 developers and I to crank out a unified Case Mgmt Portal in 5 months using 3 week sprints to demo what we had accomplished!

    We wasted time preparing for demo’s instead of focusing on functionality, which was unneeded overhead given that we required 15 developers for 18 months to deliver this system.

    Client wasn’t happy we didn’t complete project since this recent university grad sold them on concept that agile can make miracles happen!

  • Fareed Quraishi August 13, 2013, 6:48 am

    It is unfortunate that Agile thought leaders & consultants get a free ticket to state what “should” be done and then walk away. When my team was boot-strapped our consultant would tout grandiose ideas of how Agile “should” work and everyone ate it up. After a few years of acting as the ScrumMaster and testing what works and what doesn’t I am continuously making the team more Agile.

    Agile isn’t a perfect recipe that can be applied to all teams. I’ve found it more of an emotion, pushing towards shortening the iteration cycle and putting viable products in front of the customer for feedback. I think keeping this in mind as I organically adapting the process.

    Yeah consultants and thought leaders do carry clout and diverse experience. Nothing will surpass being in the field and constantly fighting the political battles to best apply agile.

  • Mike January 24, 2015, 3:22 pm

    Szymon…you had me with “In fact I wouldn’t know how to write solid OO code in a waterfall project. Does anybody know? I don’t think so.”

    Grandious and wide-ranging claims indeed. Can’t write oo in waterfall? WTF?!?

    Dead thread I know but forced to respond.

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