There Is No Such “Thing” as Agile

Therapist Paul Watzlawick (pronounced “vaht-slah-vick”), coauthor of the classic book Change, once shared the following anecdote (paraphrasing). He went to a reception desk to check in for an appointment. “Watzlawick,” he said. The receptionist looked at him. “I never said you were,” she said after a pause. “You never said I was what?” he asked. “Slavic,” she said. “But I’m not,” he replied. They looked at each other in utter confusion. She had misheard him, and they were talking about two different things. Sometimes we speak completely past each other.

This is often unavoidable with terms that are so vague that we must fill in our own meaning just to make sense of the conversation. “Agile” is such a term. It’s akin to a Rorschach inkblot. It’s more something people project onto than a concrete term that informs. There isn’t enough there to really be on the same page about. As a result, we must fill in the blanks in our own idiosyncratic ways.

Charles Betz, the DevOps Leader at Forrester, recently cast this discussion in a new light when he suggested that Agile is an “essentially contested concept.” Unfamiliar with the phrase, I did some Googling. It’s a term coined by Scottish philosopher Walter Bryce Gallie. The basic idea is there are certain evaluative labels the proper use of which cannot be resolved by argument, evidence, or logic. As such, they are “essentially” contested. “Art” is such a term. The problem is, if you can’t align on the proper use of a word, in what way does it really mean anything?

As Stuart Rimell puts it, “Agile” is a word that creates an illusion of understanding while in fact spreading confusion. Consider, in discussing this with the broader product community, I am sometimes oddly reminded that, “Agile isn’t a thing, so what specifically am I criticizing?” Think about that for a moment. What does that imply exactly? To me it only further supports what we’ve been saying here. Let’s take it one step further. Agile isn’t a “thing,” and, in fact, there is no such “thing” as Agile.

If you’re told an organization is “Agile,” and you had good money riding on correctly guessing what concrete practices it thought warranted the label, what would you predict? If you were smart (and wanted to make money), you should predict it’s a command-and-control, hierarchical waterfall org with the teams at the bottom doing Scrum. A good 95% of the time, that’s what “Agile” is used to mean. Never mind it has nothing to do with agility. Now, some consultants would object, arguing, “Well, that’s not real Agile.” But what is “real” Agile? The usual answer is “the Manifesto.” But the Manifesto only pertains to teams, which is (at best) a local optimization. (Klaus Leopold exposed the idiocy of this with a single PowerPoint slide.)

So, again, back to the org. Let’s say an organization does quarterly PI planning. The team POs coordinate with senior-level paladins, the teams in their fellowship trains have their Dungeon Masters and Ops dwarves, and they crank out the software that’s prioritized for them by the people with the rings of power. The question remains, is this org “Agile?”

Some industry experts would say, “Yes. In fact, that’s precisely how you scale Agile.” And some would say, “No, that’s not real Agile — that’s a feature factory.” So, who’s right? I think Groucho is. How does it matter? In my opinion what was described is a silly way of working, but that doesn’t mean it’s not Agile. And that’s the crux of it. Calling something “Agile” simply isn’t helpful. Is it a smart way of working? Are teams quickly learning their ways to value-adding outcomes? Or is no one even looking at that? (What’s the difference between an “Agile team” and a team that’s just testing their assumptions in the most efficient ways possible and pivoting based on what they learn? Descriptively, there’s typically a big difference.)

Back to our hypothetical org. If Agile isn’t a “thing,” then what on earth can it mean to “scale Agile?” I submit there’s really only one valid answer: There is no such thing as Scaled Agile. When orgs talk about “scaling Agile,” they are not talking about increasing agility — they are talking about coordinating dependencies. Most of these dependencies are voluntarily self-imposed, and agility will only increase when they are broken. When you have 100 people working on something 10 people can actually do, “scaling” is waste. (But that doesn’t mean you lay 90 people off. If you do, you’re trashing the value those 90 people could create when their capacity is freed.)

As we’ll see in coming posts, part of the problem in the product world is that we’ve been using the wrong metaphors. Nebulous terms like “Agile” only further muddy the waters. “Agile” is an obfuscation leveraged by mills to sell certifications and by consultants to accrue fees. As hypnotist Steve Heller once asked, if two people agree that a thing is “X” but have radically different responses to it, what matters more, their agreement that a thing is “X,” or their individual responses? If Betz is correct, then not only is the answer here the latter, but there is no way to settle which responses are correct. What this leaves us with is the conclusion that the word “Agile” really doesn’t mean anything, and it’s time we stopped using it.