This is a transcript of episode 219 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel and Jeffrey meditate on Brian Marick’s announcement that he will no longer accept talk invitations on agile development, and the (different) reasons that both of them still use term “agile”. Topics include joy at work, how it leads to profit, and the “near enemy” of that joy, which can lead to disillusionment.

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: We’ve had guests for a while and I’ve forgotten what it’s like to do one ourselves, so this is going to be fun. You have a topic, I think?

Jeffrey: I do. I’m inspired by an exchange on Twitter that came up about a week ago, this is from a thread started by Brian Merrick. For people who don’t know, Brian was one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, and he has decided that he is no longer going to talk to people about Agile. He says he’s decided he has nothing useful to say about the current relevance of the movement called Agile, and he’s now going to decline interviews or invitations to talk about what he calls his ‘accidental but sincere association with the 2001 movement.’ I think that’s really interesting, and there’s more in the thread. He said he believes both, that the spirit of what came to be called Agile was great and liberatory, and that it got dumbed-down and co-opted rather quickly. Fortunately, he’s still there to encourage those of us who’d like to recover its original spirit, but he says he has nothing useful to say. I thought was interesting too that someone else that you and I both know—Rachel Davies—chimed in and said likewise that she no longer takes those invitations. So I thought that was really interesting that this person who I respect and has been very influential for me has decided to not talk about Agile. It kind of begged the question for me of ‘Why do I feel differently? Why do I and why do we still talk about Agile? Why do we call our book Agile Conversations? Why do we call our podcast Troubleshooting Agile?’ We’re not shying away from it. What’s the difference between us and others who’ve been in the Agile game a long time?

Choice of Associations

Listen to this section at 02:07

Squirrel: I’ll say something: as you pointed out when we talked about this before if you look on my website, you won’t see the word ‘agile’ anywhere, and you won’t see me going to… I’ve even pejoratively called it the the ‘Agile Ghetto.’ I’ve described conferences and talks and books and workshops and so on that are very heavily focused on agile with a capital A and capital letters everywhere; techniques and looking things up in the book and following a sequence of steps and even being dogmatic about extreme programming or something like that. I’ve described those as kind of a dead end, and I have friends who I really feel badly for because they don’t seem to be able to get out of the software development part of the business. I always see software as subservient to a gold owner, somebody with a profit center, and those are the people that I try to talk to and they don’t talk about Agile. They might talk about it pejoratively, say, ‘Oh, those developers are doing some Agile thing, but it’s not helping me.’ Very, very rarely you’ll find somebody who says, ‘Yeah, we tried this Agile thing and it worked for us.’ So I’m actually with Rachel and Brian in that my marketing doesn’t have agile on it anywhere. But at the same time, I’m perfectly happy to have a book out called Agile Conversations and to be talking on a podcast today called Troubleshooting Agile. I’m fine with that. I can say more about it, but I’m not too interested in marketing my own work using that moniker.

Jeffrey: Which is interesting, and I think it makes a lot of sense especially given your consulting. We’ve talked about this in the past and listeners won’t be surprised to hear that when you go in, you’re often advocating things that people with an agile background would recognize as agile.

Squirrel: Absolutely.

Jeffrey: You just don’t talk about them in those terms.

Squirrel: And I intentionally don’t do that because those terms tend to be meaningful only to a portion of my audience. It might be only the software developers, only the system admins, only the product managers. I’d rather talk to the whole group for whom these ideas are relevant, and if they need to go look up some labels they can do that.

Jeffrey: Interesting. For me it’s a bit different, and I like the title of our podcast, and I like the choice of our book. But the reason wasn’t so much about going out trying to change the world, it’s very much about trying to reach people who are looking to improve, people who are looking to do better. Actually there’s an interesting segue here. We did a poll to our listeners not long ago and we asked people, ‘why do you listen to Troubleshooting Agile?’

Squirrel: Let’s be fair it was pretty long ago actually, now that we’ve done all these interviews, so we’ve been sitting on this poll for a while, but the results were public and they were not surprising at all.

About You

Listen to this section at 05:08

Jeffrey: Yeah. We had them on both LinkedIn and on Twitter, and they were pretty substantially the same, which is the vast majority of people—almost 80% of the respondents—said that they listen to the podcast because they want to change things. They’re motivated. That was my thinking in using the agile term is that people who still use it sincerely may not fully understand it, may not have the same original motivations that were inspiring to Brian and to myself back in the early days of Agile, but they are open to change and they’re looking to improve things. Those are the people who I’m excited to try to reach. I do think it’s interesting thinking about this spirit that Brian mentioned, because Agile really did start among practitioners, it was the people who were writing code or as in Brian’s case, testing.

Squirrel: And that’s been its strength and its weakness.

Jeffrey: Can you say more about that?

Squirrel: Sure. The idea of having a team that would be really iterative and have rapid feedback and great new ideas, would rapidly implement them and get feedback from customers and make progress every day… Those are amazing ideas. We’re not going to achieve those every time. I’m okay with that. I think it’s very easy to oversell what you’re supposed to get from an agile team. Some of us may manage to hit Joy at Work or Joy, Inc or one of those fabulous books and the results those people get. Excellent! Let’s aim for that, but I’m not attached to the notion that you must achieve those results and if you don’t you’re going to be miserable. That’s what I often get from the old-time, somewhat bitter agile practitioners who say, ‘Yeah, I had that one great project, it was fantastic, and everyone else has corrupted the ideas.’ Maybe I’m just being the glass half-full guy, but they’re missing all the wonderful things that have happened and have manifestly improved results for companies. Maybe not as much for the software developers within those companies as we might have liked, but the point of a company is to earn profit and to make a positive result for its customers, not to make its software developers happy. So I think the strength is it’s really attractive to software developers and it was originated by them, and the weakness is it’s really attractive to software developers and sometimes blinds them, at least in my experience. What’s yours?

Jeffrey: I have some similarities and some differences. In this thread Brian had linked to an article he wrote in 2007, and he talked about the forgotten agile values. We’ve actually linked to some other posts from Brian on the same topic before, but he talked about how many of the original advocates for Agile became so because of that one great project you talked about, that one that made the awkwardness and nastiness and pointless unpleasantness of all the others seem a blight that has to be wiped out. Actually, I have a lot of empathy for that, and I do think joy in work is something that people have forgotten, and that was very motivating.

Squirrel: I’m 100% in favor. It’s just you’re not going to find it every time and that’s still okay. You can still get good results.

Jeffrey: I would say that’s acceptable, like it’s realistic to say you’re not always going to get there. I would say I’m maybe a little less accepting than you are, because I look at it as ‘the things preventing us from being joyful in our project are symptoms we should probably be looking at.’

Squirrel: 100% agree.

Jeffrey: This is a lot of what I’ll talk to people about. We’ve talked before about the kind of questions we would ask in a one-on-one. One of the ones that I got from you was, ‘are you happy?’

Squirrel: Absolutely. What a great question. But if the answer isn’t ‘yes’ 100% of the time, that doesn’t mean we’ve all been a miserable failure and that we should throw out the Agile baby with the bathwater.

Offputting Desirable Goals

Listen to this section at 09:46

Jeffrey: That’s true. I think there’s definitely a problem though, if the techniques of agile that help deliver business value have been the ones that have been most widely adopted, and the elements with less certain connection to business value but which would make people happier wouldn’t be more widely adopted. For example, the way people communicate on the project: there’s something important about having those interactions be ones that are positive, that leave people excited, that they can disagree productively, not just for the purposes of delivering business value, but also for feeling like they’re part of a team; to feel like they’re part of something, part of a great project and a team that’s trying to improve and that cares about results. I think there’s this emotional aspect I read about among the forgotten agile values, and people often lose sight of. By the way, his four things are skill, discipline, ease, and joy. That those elements have been often forgotten and not talked about because it’s harder to tie them to specific business value. Does that make sense at all that these things that are more nebulous but still important parts of the spirit might be left behind because they don’t sell as well to management?

Squirrel: Well, the challenge here is some of the agile values that are somewhat implicit in the manifesto and which Brian made explicit—some of those sound kind of self-serving. They sound like that’s a nice thing for you. There’s this imbalance which I haven’t quite got my head round, I kind of experience it, but I don’t know how to put it. We have these super talented people who have very rare skills and command high salaries and are kind of the wizards guarding the secrets and the magic. These amazing people somehow get to dictate how the rest of the business runs? This is the inversion I get all the time from a lot of my clients: ‘I haven’t heard anything from the technology team. I can’t ask them any questions. They just don’t seem to be doing anything visible for the last 12 months.’ This inversion of accountability leads to exactly the kind of response that I think you’re describing, where ease and joy and so forth sound wonderful, but us hard-nosed business people, we are not going to do that, and we certainly not going to be pushed around by those techie people who are getting too big for their britches. I get a lot of that. I think the danger is there’s a better way to look at it, which you’ve articulated well, Jeffrey: that if you were to pay attention to those things, you’d get better business results. But that might not be the way to sell it, and that’s why I don’t mark it on my own website. ‘You can do Agile better. I can teach you how to use Scrum. Your stand-ups will be better.’ I say things like, ‘You’ll make more money, you’ll waste fewer resources on projects that go nowhere. You’ll make insane products that everyone will love.’ Those are the sorts of things that I claim I can do. Guess how I do that! With a whole bunch of agile techniques. I just don’t happen to market it that way. So I’d suggest if our listeners are looking for something to do—which we always try to give them—one thing I would encourage them to do is look for ways to head for the both explicit and implicit agile values, results, and the direction that Brian and others pointed us all to that long time ago. But you don’t have to sell it as agile. That’s how I do it.

Jeffrey: I think that makes perfect sense. Hearing you describe that sort of inversion, what I was reminded of is the Buddhist concept of ‘near enemies.’ Which is to say something that looks like virtue but is not. One that always comes to mind is the near enemy of compassion is pity. It masquerades as compassion. I’ve definitely seen the kind of anti-patterns you’re describing, some people have taken some of the messages of agile and warped them in a way that become self-serving and misaligned with those wonderful projects that got early agile people really excited. You cited a couple of books, Menlo Innovations wrote a book called Joy, Incorporated about how they run their business. Dennis Bakke wrote a book called Joy at Work, and in his book he says—this is an interesting line between us perhaps—that if you if you sell people on your more humanistic way of working as ‘this will produce better results,’ then when things don’t go as well, people will point to you or your movement, agile let’s say, and go ‘See, this would never work! You had this crazy idea about empowering people, about letting them talk to each other, have more control over the schedule and see? It doesn’t work.’ Ignoring the fact of course, that traditional methods don’t work 100% of the time either. It can be difficult to sell those things. But he makes the argument we should be pushing for empowerment of people because that’s the way that you should treat people. This resonates for me similar to when Brian in his paper says joy in projects is its own justification. We shouldn’t have to need more justification. We’re going to do this because it’s more joyful if we work this way. At the same time, I think Brian would be with you that of course we still need to actually solve the problems. He talks about joy after skill and discipline, ‘do we have the right skills and are we disciplined about what we’re doing? Are we actually generating the results we need to?’ And then, joy is its own justification. For me agile is how all these things come together. I certainly still am a believer that we can get better business value and people will be more joyful. I’m optimistic about the future. I was convinced by something that I saw Alistair Cockburn talk about probably more than a year ago now, responding to a trend of people saying Agile has become a negative thing today, ‘it’s passé.’ He made the point that actually, if you think of Agile as applying a humanistic approach to work more generally, then we’re probably still at the very early stages, and the fact that people have misunderstood it is okay, because your two choices when you take a message mainstream are either that it will be ignored or it will be misunderstood. So having it be somewhat misunderstood was the only outcome that would be possible if it was actually going to have an impact on the world. So that’s a long diatribe but coming back to say I’m still agile-positive. I agree with you: I don’t use it as the leading thing I talk to people about, I do talk about business value, but then I very much care that the people who are doing the work ideally be enjoying it. I do think when people experience those better projects, their joy makes them advocates for doing things in this different way. So I’m optimistic, and I appreciate Brian posting about his current status and the fact that he’s tired of talking about it. I don’t blame him, but I’m still out here hopefully taking that spirit forward.

Squirrel: Likewise, just with a slightly different focus. So this has been a very interesting tour over our thoughts about the podcast and its title, and our book and its title, and in general how people approach agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.