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Of course agile is a fad

August 28th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Anyone else getting asked is agile just a fad? Has it gone mainstream? Anyone else wondering why we are seeing people saying, “we’re doing agile” and others arguing that of course they haven’t, it’s just expedient?

According to my loose interpretation of Mary Poppendeick on a Hanselminutes podcast, of course agile is a fad. Well she didn’t actually say agile was, but she did make a comment based on experience. Fads in software development seem to last around 7 years. She argues that this is not surprising because management and management cycles tend to be of that duration. This point suits me. If agile was formerly named around 2000 marking its birth then we may have hit the end of a cycle. Has it hit maturity? Are parts of it being integrated into mainstream? Has the agile alliance achieved it stated aim for agile to gain widespread adoption?

From the look of the papers at Agile2008, perhaps it has reached a certain type of maturity.  There weren’t a lot of new ideas/practices on showcase. Although KanBan and micro releases were one area that was generating discussion. Also UX appears to thinking about how it affects SDLC. There was a lot of adopting/teaching sessions – not surprising the increase in size of the conference to around 1600. So in short, the weighting was against breaking acts and toward leadership.

Let me then pose that in fact the statement/question Is agile a fad? indicates instead that it has already hit mainstream. In answering this question, I wonder how is asking the question in the first place. Is it not  mainstream that can ask that question in the first place? Fad indicates some sense of derision that those in agile wouldn’t tend to suggest. And if mainstream does ask that question, in what ways might we see that parts of (or in full) agile has been already adopted or co-opted? For example, how would you explain that at an agile conference Microsoft has a stand (promoting TFS) that showcases a white paper by Kent Beck for Microsoft on Tools for Agility [don't tell me you can't see the contradictions there].

Of course, the agile-as-a-fad question at its most naive is dismissive. I have been asked it often, we read in the blogs and hear in the podcasts. In my weak moments, it frustrates me, it silences me, it angers me. I get over it. When I am patient, calm or not under pressure, I like think about that question in terms of “discourse”. Let me take some time to explain. I use some very nice historical research from Alice Echols around the role of radical feminism to change overall societal attitudes. Or put in discourse terms, how discourses change over time.

Echols argued that radical feminists changed how mainstream thought about women, and how (liberal) feminists thought about gender relations. These feminists, she argues, were only a very small group, in a small place, over a small duration and left a long-lasting legacy. I’m already starting to make the link between agile practitioners in the last while ;-) Small group, big effect and all that.

Echols argues that radical feminists “dared to be bad”. They did things that mainstream thought were bad. The group was only small. Of perhaps around 4000 women. Primarily in the US and on the West coast, they were daring to be bad throughout the period of 1968 to 1974. Of what we now refer to as radical feminists, it is this group that strikingly were. Of course, there still are feminists taking a radical position and this group didn’t just wake up one morning and it didn’t exist. But she does show that the action taken was finite with a definite effect.

One of those effects was that the form of radical feminism needed between 68 and 74 was no longer needed or appropriate after that period. Many of the tenets of that radicalism which were previously bad, were no longer seen as bad. In fact, she points out that many of these practices can now be seen in liberal feminism – which by definition no longer makes them bad.

Out of Echols’ analysis we see that radical practices are bad insofar as historical moments. Moreover, we need radical practices to shift what constitutes bad from one period to another. However, these types of changes are ruptures in thinking – swings from one thought to another.  That is social thinking (as opposed to people) doesn’t shift from one though to another. We don’t see liberal thinking become radical. Rather it incorporates radical thinking as the shifts are incremental. In this sense, liberal and radical thinking are relative to each other and rely on each other. Radical is necessarily a challenge to liberal thinking rather than an idea separate from it. Liberal in that always holds its ground in relation to radical thinking (and probably doesn’t want to acknowledge it). In this relative position, there is always a struggle going on and who wins and to what extent is not guaranteed. It is less of a zero-sum game that one wins over the other because each position is never fixed for long.

What does this mean for agile and software development? Agile as a fad indicates to me that the agile-as-radical thinking is being adopted and co-opted by mainstream-as-liberal thinking. The few thousands agilists over the last decade have paved the way for making important tenets of agile into everyday common sense. Mainstream software just isn’t the same even in the minds of those I saw say three years arguing they had it right. They (as individuals and corporations) have been injected/infected with new (agile) practices; they have resisted and struggled; they had their own thoughts and approaches.

So when I hear questions about agile as a fad I should just smile and realise that all the work done by the software radicals have made my work life a better place.

p.s. none of this foregrounds that change made should not be taken for granted that it won’t be rolled back. We might see a backlash in the near future that is regressive to software development.

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  1. September 15th, 2011 at 08:21 | #1

    If you know how to write good code do not listen to the Agile bullshitters. If you suck at writing code then quit. Agile is something that non-software people bullshit about so they can get into software (without knowing the difference between their arse and their elbow). Oh it is most certainly a fad.

  2. John Quincy
    October 20th, 2011 at 14:31 | #2

    This is why agile is so damned popular:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvks70PD0Rs

    It’s hilarious, but unfortunately true.

    John

  3. todd
    October 22nd, 2011 at 14:58 | #3

    @John. Funny btu just a little more cynical than the point I was making. I was more one that the transformative aspects of agile as a radical practice will get consumed into commonsense. This will have a dual affect of both shifting practice making it “better” (we see this with TDD & CI and to a lesser extent Pair Programming) and rounding the edges (which is closer to your video)

    –tb

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