A critique of Agile theory — and why Agile rarely works in practice

For product leaders wanting to do things differently.

Aug 26 · 5 min read

The Good Samaritan Experiment

In 1973, a group of psychologists from Princeton University ran an experiment to determine whether teaching a belief actually influences behaviour (i.e. whether we actually act in accordance with that belief in reality).

A select group of religious experts were asked to deliver a talk on the learnings from the parable of the Good Samaritan (the moral of the story being to always stop & show compassion to those in need).

During this experiment, the supposed Good Samaritans would all walk the same way to deliver their sermon on how they interpreted the Good Samaritan parable, being told they had a varying number of minutes to get there, thus instilling different levels of urgency for each test group.

On the way, however, psychologists John Darley and C. Daniel Batson had placed a dishevelled, helpless homeless person (an actor) along their path, clearly in need, who was there to test whether they actually lived by their teachings and stopped to help.

You know how many of the priests stopped & showed compassion when in a hurry? Under 10%. Despite their strong religious beliefs & their theoretical knowledge of ethics and compassion., in the heat of the moment, theory went out the window.

How many of you profess to care for others or critique the behaviour of others, yet failed to stop & offer assistance last time you saw someone in need? I certainly know that I have been guilty of this more than once.

We are all able to profess a theoretical standpoint on something, yet we are rarely able to effectively apply it in practice.

The Problem With Agile

Similarly with product development, when we are nervous, stress, anxious, when we feel the uncertainty & pressure of building a new venture, we are unlikely to stop & think clearly & deliberately about our decisions.

You can be as well versed as you like in Agile theory, but the (usually) chaotic, inherently uncertain world of building a new product — made more chaotic by the stress, office politics and competing agendas of a team with a mediocre or toxic work culture — will mean you throw that Agile theory out the window on day one, as the supposed experts on compassion & ethics threw out their teachings about the Good Samaritan when in a hurry.

It’s very easy, as a proponent of Agile, to say,

“Focus on the customer above all else. Adapt to change, rather than planning too far ahead.”

Yet how many Agile teams actually apply these principles effectively when it comes to the high-stakes, uncertainty of running your own startup? How many Agile experts have actually applied theory in the real-world of building their own venture?

In your own case, do you focus on the customer, yet fail to deliver enough value for them to retain & charge them for your product?

This reflects what Charles Lambdin refers to as an illusory alignment undermining Agile, where there is, in reality, a misalignment between, firstly, how teams misinterpret Agile theory, whilst assuming they are, in fact, interpreting it correctly. Secondly, it represents a misalignment between what managers understand the values of Agile to be, and what developers understand Agile to be (generally speaking, resulting in an illusion of agreement, and of alignment, when in fact both groups have an entirely different understanding of what being agile entails)

Do you “adapt”, yet never seem to feel like you’re moving in a clear direction — or are simply lacking entirely in a strategy to determine your direction?

Do you feel stressed, over-worked & tired? Never able to come up with truly innovative, game-changing ideas that will help take your product to the next level?

In all these cases, what do you profess to believe? And what do you actually do?

A New Way

Far too many teams profess to believe one thing, yet end up doing another.

They say they believe in Agile principles (focusing on the customer & adapting to change, for example), yet seem to forget — or simply ignore — them as soon as they are immersed in the day-to-day uncertainty of building a new venture.

It’s too easy — it’s intellectually lazy even — to simply say,

“Well, this isn’t Agile. We’re not doing it right. It shouldn’t be like this. It should be like that.”

Too easy to defend a theory that is unworkable in practice for too many teams — teams who lack a foundation for calm, rational decision-making in order to learn from their work (deriving feedback from, for example, a new feature), to reflect on their work, to stop rushing around busying themselves with everything & anything — to actually prioritise & think of how to make the highest impact with their work.

And if we are not, in practice, able to adapt as intended: rationally & strategically changing based on new information & a new context, then only chaos and confusion ensue.

And if we are not, in practice, able to focus on making high-impact decisions based on delivering value to the user (enough value that they are willing to pay for our product), then only mediocracy and an unwanted product ensue.

Considering this fact, should we live in a world of hypotheticals — of ‘it should be better, but it isn’t’ — or is it not better to apply a theory to the building of successful product that deals in reality? Which, when practically applied, works as intended?

We can stubbornly continue on, hoping that one day our application of Agile will start working out as intended, or we can make a strategic pivot to try something else that actually works in practice.

That new approach — one I outline in detail in my new book, Why Your Startup is Failing — requires a new approach to not only how you build products, but how you approach your work as an individual and as a team.

It requires you to focus on the quality of your decisions, instead of simply busying yourself with “more”.

It requires you as a team to focus on impact, over efficiency. It requires you to work smarter, faster, to be more organised, in the pursuit of progress — and achieving your goals of building a successful, profitable business faster.

It requires you to actually apply an Agile process that works: one based on defining a clear strategy, on validating that that strategy is working (or not) through experimentation, on focusing our work on high-impact decisions, rather than simply efficiency and the endless pursuits of bluntly getting more done.

Using case studies, as well as my own experience building my own startup, I will arm you with a new way to build products that actually works.

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Although many readers have — understandably — requested I dive into the solution I propose for building products better, I won’t attempt to offer a solution in the form a concluding statement to one of my articles. There’s a reason I’ve written a 300-page book on the topic of applying an effective, holistic approach to building profitable products, but I do not believe that — because of the complexity of addressing & applying changes to individual decision-making, team culture & a new product development process — it can be compressed down to a few paragraphs.

I will, however, be writing a long-form article outlining that solution in the coming weeks.

Henry Latham

Written by

Author of ‘Why Your Startup is Failing’, now available for pre-order: pszr.co/CogsC | Product | Thrive Global, Guardian, UX Planet, etc.

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