Why Agile As We Know It Will Disappear

Agile Is Not a Methodology

Agile’s history tells two stories. One is of evolution from eXtreme Programming, driven by hardcore engineers, to a more business-friendly flavor called Scrum. Now, it spreads to other disciplines, like marketing and customer service. The other story is a subtler and more important one, about the business world’s gradual willingness to let go of antiquated management philosophies.

Agile was born of a grassroots movement by software engineers who knew there was a better way to build software. They could feel it, intuitively. Its theories and philosophies mirror those of the lean manufacturing movement: a similarly disruptive paradigm shift. Neither of these were inventions. They were revelations.

Agile is a rediscovery of an organically optimal way to approach complex problems (in this case software development). Agility is not a product of methodology.

This is why it’s so common to hear Agile enthusiasts claim they borrow from a bunch of Agile methodologies. A-little-of-this-a-little-of-that approaches manifest, because no single methodology is “the one.” They are all just different ways of expressing the same principles. They rarely contradict one another, yet they focus on different parts of the problem domain. They are compatible, because those methodologies do not make Agile what it truly is.

The Purpose of a Framework

It had to be difficult, when those first innovative engineers started to question the way things were done. Describing and selling people on a paradigm shift requires that you take a complicated concept, and boil it down to something simple. Spoon feeding someone complexity, until the lightbulb switches on, is the only way to make them accept it.

Methodologies like Scrum, Kanban and eXtreme Programming are frameworks for expressing Agile’s philosophy in simpler, more tangible terms. Using one of these packaged approaches means you can just get everybody to do Agile without necessarily getting it. They are immediately actionable.

The impact on business that Agile demands necessitated a framework. Everyone learned to do it the old way for so long that people had to be cognitively rewired. Business had to be reorganized. (Those that didn’t often failed at their Agile transformation.) It required big changes.

Today that impact doesn’t seem so jarring. What happens when Agile just becomes the way we do things?

Agility Instead of Agile

Those methodologies have been valuable at a tactical level, because they gave us a “way to do it.” Each one structured that ambiguous, but organically correct way to solve complex problems. They packaged ideas into nice boxes with pretty labels, allowing each methodology to become a vehicle for understanding.

Agile methodologies facilitated people “getting it.” Ultimately, that will be their core contribution to the Agile movement: far more so than the logistics they prescribe.

A good chunk of my generation of professionals were never indoctrinated with the old way. Fewer of the next one will. Agile is far easier to digest when it’s how you were taught to do things, when you don’t know any better. Many people understand now that you don’t necessarily need a formal Agile methodology to be Agile. There’s an intuitive distinction between doing and being.

That distinction will continue to grow. It will continue to reduce the need for formalized ways to be Agile. Incorporating agility will be recognized as more important than doing Agile. It’ll be baked into our professional cultures in the same way that rigid requirements management had been for so long. The Agile we know today will become so ingrained and obvious that we won’t have to talk about it anymore.

Agile’s Disappearing Act

Many organizations are already there. The underlying philosophy of Agile/Lean/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is part of their DNA. More organizations will follow suit, possibly even some really big ones. Those that don’t will eventually fall, because you cannot navigate the complexities of today’s world with rigidity and tradition. 

The Agile we know is going to disappear, because it will be understood. Will you be one of the organizations that falters in this new world or one that thrives in it?

Title image by Jared Tarbell (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license