“Is it possible to be an Agile purist in the modern day workplace?”

Luke Bellamy
May 25 · 4 min read

I was recently contacted to speak at an Agile event on whether it is possible to be an agile purist in the modern day workplace. Luckily for all involved (especially the audience) someone else stepped forward and did it before I responded. I imagine whoever gave the talk probably looks like the image below, the damn athletic, charismatic speech stealers! but I digress.

An image of a ridiculously athletic man and woman, possessing abdominal muscles that are so defined you could grate cheese on them.

Ignoring my bruised and fractured fragile masculine ego I thought it was a genuinely interesting question. Do I think that it is possible? Well if we take the question completely at face value then yes, of course it is possible. But perhaps a better question (and what I truly believe the question to be asking) is ‘Should you be an agile purist in the modern day workplace’.

For clarity’s sake I think it is worth mentioning what I think agile purist means. In an ideal world I imagine that it would be following the ‘Guidelines’ of the agile manifesto:-

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

This is lovely and loose and gives you plenty of scope to frankly work however your team thinks best. But increasingly I find that when people talk about ‘Agile’ in this context they really mean using one of the various and increasingly numerous (a new one may have been invented while I was writing this) Agile frameworks including but not limited to:-

Scrum

Kanban

SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework)

DSDM (Dynamic System Development Method)

Lean

DAD (Disciplined Agile Delivery)

LeSS (large Scale Scrum)

Scrum@Scale

Now a lot of these are great, I really rate Scrum, Kanban and have a big soft spot for parts of SAFe. But for example is being a Scrum purist a good thing?

Now to make a quick segue to an analogy while also providing me with an opportunity to (hopefully and shamelessly) boost the popularity of this blog by including a picture of some cute dogs.

An image of two very cute and wrinkly fully grown bulldogs with one bulldog puppy.
An image of two very cute and wrinkly fully grown bulldogs with one bulldog puppy.

Here we have a family of British Bulldogs in all their wrinkly and slobbery glory. Now I love British Bulldogs and think they look smashing, however there is no getting away from some challenges that their ‘purity’ brings with it. These 3 little charmers will most likely suffer from severe breathing difficulties, skin problems, joint problems and dental issues throughout their lives.

Naturally I am being hyperbolic and I don’t really think that following one framework to the letter will necessarily give your organisation the corporate equivalent of the Habsburg chin.

But if we follow my analogy further, below we have a mongrel. No ‘pure’ breed here, rather a suitably hairy demonstration of the success of varied genetics. Why wouldn’t we take this into consideration when deciding what frameworks to use?

An image of a mixed breed dog
An image of a mixed breed dog

Now to be fair a number of the scaled frameworks already take some of this into account, for example LeSS, SAFe and Scrum@scale (naturally) all use Scrum at the team level. But time and time again I think something that holds back many people that I meet in the Agile space is the dedication to following a framework to the letter. I always find this most notable in the planning length for Scrum. Perhaps I am seriously misguided but I can’t remember the last time that any of my teams came close to spending close to 2 hours of planning per two week sprint let alone the recommended maximum of 4 hours.

Now back to our analogy and the agile manifesto. To me this screams out that to be the most successful organisation that you can be, you should mix and match as many winning parts of these tools as you can. If you want to use the Scrum Ceremonies and cadence but are unable to lock down your scope for two weeks because life happens and priorities change, just do it. If the idea of implementing SAFe at your organisation terrifies you (and I must admit whenever I look at the Portfolio diagram my brain begins to boil) then steal the parts you like: I have found great value in using ‘Weighted shortest job first’ (WSJF) to help us prioritise and justify our decisions. I also think doing communal planning across teams quarterly has significant value as well as helping to maintain a shared purpose and direction. But I dislike the train obsession in SAFe and I am keen to avoid all discussion about them.

We are living in a world that is speeding up relentlessly, we cannot afford to wait for the next framework to be launched to tell us how to adapt and how to manage things now.

Don’t be a zealot tightly gripping your scrum guide like a priest holding the bible during the reformation.

Purity is overrated, It’s time to evolve.