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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

On Agile Once Again

On Agile Once Again post image

There was said a lot in the old rusty discussion on being agile versus doing agile, The Only Right Mindset, etc. Same with lean but on a smaller scale I guess. In all these discussions I always try to be on common sense side.

I mean I somehow missed the moment when agile became a major religion and lean a minor one (for the time being), but evidently it must have happened as I see lots of worshippers around. People who know the one and the only way of doing things. People who believe in this or that method. Me? I don’t buy it.

I will support most agile and lean initiatives I see out there, but it is not because they suit to my perfect picture of the world. It is so because applying Scrum or Kanban, even by the book, is still an improvement for majority of teams. By the way, pardon my “Kanban by the book” as there is no such thing, but definitely there already are beaten paths leading to Kanban adoption so it wasn’t vast oversimplification.

Anyway, whenever I’m talking with a team about methods I don’t object adopting old-school formal waterfall-like approaches, pardon my French. On occasions I may even advise sticking to them.

And if you ask me, this is exactly being agile.

It’s easy to criticize a team which is following a heavy process. The Manifesto says “people over process,” so you’re doing it wrong! But wait, aren’t that people who enforced (or asked for) this process? Are we really that fixed if we can consume changing requirements and still deliver, despite our heavy process? And most of all, isn’t Scrum (to take the example from the top of my head) a pretty formal process as well?

We are far beyond the point where you could get away with simple labels like “Scrum means agile.” We know more, we understand more and most of all we have hell lot of examples of good, bad and ugly things done under the agile banner.

If I see a team that has a very formal process enforced by their client and they are doing very well, yet they still look for occasions to reduce the burden of formalities while sustaining the quality I see agile. I see it even if the only practice from Scrum handbook they follow is daily standup. I see agile even if, at the first look, most of people would rate them “hard-core waterfall.”

On the other hand, when I see a team applying Scrum, Kanban or whatever they believe is the next big thing, and they are doing it blindly, without understanding how the damn thing works, why it works and how it even applies to team’s specific situation I don’t see even a bit of the message which started it all.

You can say that I oversimplify things. Maybe I do. Yet this approach works for me. This is a lesson I got from jumping on Kanban bandwagon. Kanban is vague enough that the simple message that a team is using the method tells you almost nothing. At the same these few simple rules, which come in variety of flavors, usually bring pretty good results. If you understand what you’re doing, that is.

You don’t need strict and specific rules to make it work. You just need understanding of the tool you use.

This is pretty interesting observation as I happen to be part of program board on different agile/lean events and I still see many proposals trying to go through with the message about the ultimate way of doing things. Wake up! We’re past this point for some time already. We don’t need oracles. We need practitioners sharing their ups and downs, successes and failures, and most importantly deep understanding what they are doing, why, and how comes that it happens to work.

And by the way if you happen to suit this picture somehow I encourage you to submit your proposal to the ACE Conference – the event I can honestly recommend. We still look for a handful of speakers to share their knowledge and experience. Besides, Krakow in late spring/early summer is a really nice place to visit.

in: project management

13 comments… add one

  • Roger February 16, 2012, 12:07 pm

    This reminds me of some big corporations that go through what they’ve labeled as “Agile transformation”. In practice that is management telling to all the work force: “now, BE agile”. To me that isn’t agile at all! That is as idiotic as arranging a party and ordering your friends to “have fun”, guess what: they won’t!

    Each situation, likely even each team within an organization will require a different approach to succeed. So, this time I agree with you Pawel :)

  • Szymon Pobiega February 17, 2012, 1:59 am

    Generally it is hard to disagree, but… I think that it is worth emphasising that the only valid reason to use waterfallish processes is that the upstream organization (the client) forces you to do so. If you agree, you can for sure perform well locally (meaning, given these conditions) but globally the whole process will be far from optimal. And here’s your choice. You can either agree that it is enough for you to optimize locally and live with inefficient upstream organization or quit and try to find conditions where either the upstream is efficient or you can force it to be so.

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 17, 2012, 5:04 am

    @Szymon – It’s oversimplification on many levels.

    First, the client often controls both upstream and downstream process. It doesn’t have to be enforcement of a formal process. It may just be convenience to do so.

    Second, consider it’s not the client that enforces formalized process on you. But what about your own organization? It’s not that rare that you have all the procedures and processes which you can change.

    Third, even if both above is true most likely you should be able to apply most agile practices in the part of the organization you have control over. Now, should you? Personally, contrary to many, I don’t think there is simple answer for such question. You should consider what works for your team.

    Fourth, even though I may agree that, in general, flexible process works way better, you can’t consider it without assessing the cost of introducing change, especially when the change is significant. Many agile initiatives die because they are too much of revolution and resistance is just too big. By the way, that’s one of sources of my affection toward Kanban which proposes evolutionary changes.

    Fifth, there are projects where some agile principles don’t work that well. If the cost of stopping the line to deploy new version of software is counted in weeks and cost in hundreds thousands dollars you definitely don’t want to push every feature to production once it is ready. Think of implementing software according to very detailed specs where there’s no place for embracing change as there are no changes whatsoever.

    We tend to judge the whole domain of software development basing on our experience, which is usually very narrow. I mean how many of us had a chance to build software for life saving devices, weapons or nuclear plants, let alone simple things like cars, traffic lights, etc? Software which can take lives when something goes really wrong. How many of us had a chance to work in environment where deployment is really, really difficult, e.g. space missions or critical telecommunication core systems?

    I know it’s not the mainstream of software development, but still such examples always remind me how we generalize things.

  • Jordan February 17, 2012, 9:36 pm

    I think we and others are blogging about common themes, and what it boils down to is why so much divisiveness? If XYZ is good for say, 10% of projects, isn’t that enough to stand on its own?

    Why does it have to be good for 100% of projects?

    And that gets directly into the religion/dogma. The only reason the agilists hate waterfall is they want to sell them agile. They only reason scrummists hate kanban is because they want to sell them kanban. Ad nauseum.

    If people have ideas, fine, share them; people can do what they can with them.

    To cram them down each other’s throats is pure marketing, just like Mac versus PC or Coke versus Pepsi. It’s all sugared water.

    Personally I think the entire agile landscape is so infested with profiteers (including Mr Anderson of “kanban” fame) that it needs to be completely rebooted.


  • Pawel Brodzinski February 19, 2012, 6:14 am

    @Jordan – It’s neither Coke versus Pepsi nor PC versus Mac. We don’t discuss here a product but the approach. Actually, your comment can be copied to your post on the subject as well – the simple fact that your approach works in your environment doesn’t necessarily mean that it would typically work in other environments as well.

    The other point you mention is dogma. As you know I’m sort of allergic when it comes to dogma, but still throwing all agile/lean thought leaders to the same bucket isn’t fair. I see a difference between Mike Cohn’s and Ken Schwaber’s approaches, to use the most vivid example.

    I also don’t see hatred against heavy-weight methods (often labelled “waterfall” which isn’t really correct) as a universal attitude in agile world. Actually Kanban method even embraces the fact that sometimes you just can’t change your environment and the way you work, meaning it accepts that heavy-weight process did, do and will exist.

    You consider profiteers as a problem and I don’t agree either. I mean that’s obvious that vast majority of thought leaders do make money of selling their stuff, whatever their stuff is. But you can say the same thousands of other people as well, me included. What does it really prove?

    Sometimes the problem is how they sell their knowledge. If I hear good old “you’re either doing it my way or you’re doing it wrong” I just walk away. And I don’t say that the whole landscape is sick because I can easily find people with reasonable, down to earth approach which resonate well with my own approach. And if they can make money out of it, good for them.

  • Jordan February 19, 2012, 12:01 pm

    I think there can be reasonable agilists, and you are one of them. My issue with the profiteering is that:

    1) That seems to be the primary motivation of many, whether it’s all or not, is debatable, but that leads directly to the outsized claims made about it

    2) Kanban may be interesting, but it’s not new; in fact nearly every sales organization has been using kanban boards for years….

    3) I see much more dogma than I do people working together

    4) I see the credentialling organizations being dangerous and setting a bad precedent, much of which I cover on my blog

    5) People can make money doing various things; just because people are making money at it doesn’t mean that their intentions are other than selfish. Some are, some arren’t. People need to decide for themselves who to trust


  • Pawel Brodzinski February 19, 2012, 12:19 pm

    @Jordan – What you say can be applied to pretty much any method we use in software development or project management, no matter whether it is agile, somewhat agile or not agile at all. Think of PMI, to take the example from the top of my head.

    You’re right with one thing: people need to decide whom they trust. And since trust isn’t some commonly shared mark one can totally trust someone I don’t and vice versa. From my perspective that’s great.

  • Jordan February 19, 2012, 12:59 pm

    Hi Pawel

    I’m a little confused; in your original post (this one) you say “The Only Right Mindset” — as if you are anti dogma, then later when I agree with you, you say, “well, I don’t see that much dogma…..” which is it?

    People often trot out PMI — and say well, they are doing it, so it must be OK. When it comes to agile, PMI did it after Scrum did it. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    You are correctit goes beyond agile, I think all non accredited certs are bogus — especially the brainbench ones, scrum, kanban, etc. You can include PMI. The microsoft ones and cisco ones are probably a little more rigorous.

    But not everyone tries to profiteer on everything; I don’t see 3 day Ruby workshops for $3500. I don’t see certified SVN master for $1700.

    But that’s everywhere you go in agile — as if it’s a necessary or expected thing. The fact is what troubles me the most is the total lack of humility on the part of most of the people selling this stuff. They are convinced that you will become “hyper productive” — Anderson makes this claim, Schwaber does, I don’t know about Cohn — and there is no evidence to support it.

    When there is evidence to support it, and as I cover on my blog, there have been far more notable scrum failures than successes (if you know the ratio on Kanban feel free), I think it’s completely irresponsible for people to be selling certifications in a methodology, which, at least in the case of Scrum, is 20 years old with no unbiased evidence that it is effective or that it’s adoption leads to benefits.

    When Scrum or Kanban or anything else have a verifiable track record of success, I will applaud the training sessions.

    In the meantime the community could be a lot less divisive but as I mention the profit motive leads them to propose “either/or” “all or nothing” solutions so they get the sale. People should be aware of that dynamic in the marketplace.


  • Pawel Brodzinski February 20, 2012, 2:45 am

    @Jordan – I am anti-dogma, but I don’t see dogma in each and every place I look. And maybe it is the biggest difference between us, as I don’t share your view that moneymaking is virtually everywhere in agile world. What more, I’d say that there’s a lot of good free sources you can learn from (blogs, anyone?)

    And again, this is true not only for agile world but the same works for PMBOK, Prince2 and whatnot.

    So instead of fighting the reality I just accept what it is and look for my own way in this landscape. I can say that, at least from my perspective, money I spent on this journey so far (conferences, retreats, etc.) was money well spent. I’m not certified though and I don’t plan to be anytime soon.

    BTW: hyper-productivity is such a worn buzz word, which I never liked. These days I don’t see many, if any, hyper-productivity claims. I’d be interested if you can direct me to fresh sources still beating this horse.

  • Jordan February 20, 2012, 12:11 pm

    Hi Pawel

    Happy to. Here is David Anderson: “About
    David J. Anderson
    David has been a manager and leader of great software teams delivering cutting edge software products since 1991. He has a successful track record of building progressively bigger teams capable of hyper productive performance and superior quality.


    Here is Sutherland talking about hyperproductivity, and he has many current quotes about it you can google. Nevertheless here is one recent example:



  • Jordan February 20, 2012, 12:14 pm

    FYI the reason I fight this stuff is not merely the profiteering; the profiteering is a symptom but it isn’t the disease.

    The disease is that there is the notion that the “one true way” has already been discovered, and that chokes out the growth of new ideas that could be better.

    That is the problem I work to address — the viral weed aspect that all we need is scrum or kanban, which many, many people claim, and they have many sycophantic adherents and that prevents growth of new ideas.

    I want to see the growth of new ideas and I’m pointing out that the old ideas are only so great, and that way too much credence is given to them.


  • Pawel Brodzinski February 20, 2012, 3:52 pm

    @Jordan – Can’t say for Jeff but when it comes to David, well, you should read his last book. I mean, really. No, I don’t get a penny for recommending it to you ;) Anyway if you really look for understanding guy’s message read the book, not the bio.

    To be honest, now I am lost in your message. I saw different teams applying different methods with either success or failure. Does it prove that any of these methods is a universal cure? No! Does it mean they suck? Again, no!

    Did renaissance of Scrum prevented Kanban joining mainstream? No! Did XP blocked the way for Scrum? Once again, negative.

    If your reference point is snake oil seller (whatever this specific snake oil might be) you will always be frustrated. But it’s your choice, so don’t complain. Even though I’m not a fan of Ken Schwaber’s recent strategy I don’t claim his work isn’t valuable. What more, I believe we still can learn from him. Which of course doesn’t mean we need to be blind followers to do so.

    Sorry, I just don’t buy such radical view of the world. Good ideas will spread and it’s in our hands and heads to use them when we believe they are appropriate.

  • Jordan February 20, 2012, 4:43 pm


    What new ideas did Scrum bring to the table? Daily meetings? Done for centuries. Adhoc in person communication? Done for millenia. Eradicating dysfunction? Not covered by the methodology and therefore soupstone.

    What did Kanban bring to the table? Progress charts on a wall? Salesmen have been doing that for decades. Walking around the factory (gemban)? Done for centuries. What is this new thing that we all need to learn from?

    You say their ideas have some value — so what are the ideas that have value and are recent enough that people haven’t already been doing them from decades.

    I’m not the most intelligent person in the world, but frankly, I’m not seeing it. What is it exactly these things are bringing to the table? Especially given the price charged (Anderson wants $3500 a pop for a 3 day seminar….On things that anyone who walks into their local sales department can find out for free)…

    The reason I’m anti snake oil is that is what is on offer here…. Snake oil or soup stones, take your pick. Please tell me what their real thing of value that’s being sold here is.


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