Are Agile Coaches living in a time warp?

Agile coaches often usher organisations into new ways of working. However they are stuck in a time warp themselves — promoting practices and ideas that were great once but not so great anymore. Agile Coaches need to stay updated and relevant like everyone else.

Debbie Levitt makes solid arguments about how the Lean Startup is irrelevant or maybe never relevant was in several contexts in this excellent article. The Lean Startup is Outdated, Drop Everything That Comes from It). I found the perspective interesting and something to ponder on.

Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe as its popularly referred to, is the leading scaling framework for agile enterprise adoption. It takes many concepts from the Lean Startup, several of which are core to its structure. Not just SAFe, many frameworks and flavours of agile also leverage these ideas in some shape and form.

I tend to agree, at least partially with Debbie. Many of these ideas that SAFe adopts and, in general, agile coaches promote from the Lean Startup have merit but often are not appropriate or fit the context in a real-world enterprise. The struggle is real.

Build Measure Learn

By Antonsk — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98719415

The fundamental assumption in the build-measure-learn is that we iterate with our build cycles trying to learn. That has merit. However, what if our core idea is flawed and we are not building the right initial features? Focusing on releasing features to the market and discovering what customers think might be good from a startup perspective, but from a large enterprise that often addresses an existing customer base, is it worth the risk? Are we leveraging on the experience and knowledge we already have of the customer or just rushing wildly into “building” like a feature factory?

Having said that build-measure-learn conceptually remains a decent idea for enterprises especially in the enterprises who spend months and sometimes years launching a new product only to discover that it was way off the mark. The challenge lies in the adoption of this practice and bringing it in context.

Minimum Viable Product

“The lesson of the MVP is that any additional work beyond what was required to start learning is waste, no matter how important it might have seemed at the time.” ― Eric Ries

As Ries advocates, the core principle about MVP is to ship the barest minimum functionality to the customer to get fast feedback. Building anything else is a waste. In large enterprises where SAFe is often practised, the scale and complexity of the product often make this MVP too big. A smaller version is often unusable or can rarely be shipped beyond a minimal audience. For enterprises, the customers are often already paying and not in the “acquiring customers” phase of a startup where things are free, and you can experiment far more easily. So while still useful, it is a concept that has found limited support. Also, the anti-pattern often observed with MVP is that teams use the same term to mean “First release”. This is where you start to see MVP-1, MVP-2 and so on. That defeats the whole purpose of using the concept of MVP.

There are few thought processes already that go beyond the MVP and make this concept more real to the enterprise world. MBI is one.

As defined on the PMI website,

Minimum Business Increment is the minimum amount of value that can be built, deployed and realize value for that makes sense from a business perspective. It contains all the pieces required for realization of value and for sustaining that realization. As well as the capabilities needed to create it.

Once we dig deeper and understand the nuances, I find the concept of MBI as advocated by Disciplined Agile far more relevant and useful in large enterprises. For a good comparison between MVP and MBI, and to understand them better, refer below

ProjectManagement.com — Minimum Business Increments (MBIs)

Pivot

Pivot is advice, as Debbie says, “could be good but rarely taken”. How often have we seen pivoting in real life and especially in enterprises? It would take a lot of leadership mettle and supportive organisational culture to “safely” pivot for large initiatives. That does happen too, but often the way is to stop talking less about the failed project and launch a brand new one with revised branding. People eventually forget about the failed one, and that’s not precisely pivoting.

This misfit of ideas is true not just for the few ideas from the Lean Startup but for many others. Story points is one such actively promoted concept, often with lot of passion by several agile coaches. It is a great concept, but its inventor has already refuted that (Story Points Revisited (ronjeffries.com). It is useful but not in all contexts and its implementation is horrible in most enterprises.

Actually, we can challenge a lot in the agile manifesto too, but that would need a blog of its own. Some folks have already done some work in that area — Agile 2. I would not say I subscribe to each and everything they claim, but it’s a good start.

Many agile coaches (especially the Agile Industrial Complex factory workers) are stuck in a time warp. They are promoting ideas that may have been fantastic and relevant in a bygone era but no longer relevant, or they could be timely advice for a small startup impractical for enterprises.

The Emperor has no clothes.

A lot of failed attempts to use these concepts or struggles are getting brushed under the “agile hype” around, where everyone wants to say they are successful at agile. The most common excuse being — Oh ! They don’t have an agile mindset ! or They are not yet ready to be agile ! Often the “emperor has no clothes” but no one dares call that ugly reality.

While agile and agility are still relevant and timely, the practices and ideas that have driven it so far need upheaval. In 2022, we cannot run with the same tools we used in 2000 or 2010. Agile itself needs to evolve with the times, and so does its practices, especially when it is becoming the new normal in large enterprises.

The Wrap

I would wrap with a line that I often mention to my clients, “What got you here, won’t get you there”. It applies to us agile coaches as well !! Like everyone else, we must constantly adapt — keep throwing out what does not work and bringing in the new.

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Enabling Change, https://hrishikeshkarekar.com

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Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh Karekar

Enabling Change, https://hrishikeshkarekar.com

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