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Agile is growing up and the way it matures is yet to be seen

Today’s keynote was just as good as yesterday’s. It really made me think about what the future of Agile is now that it’s basically mainstream. Jeff Dalton, the keynote presenter, pointed out that very large organizations are beginning to muscle in on Agile. If the software quality community doesn’t take planned steps to keep Agile flexible, a risk exists that Agile processes will turn into rituals carried out by rote in large development corporations.

This isn’t a totally new concept, of course. James Shore recognized the threat of “Cargo Cult Agile” over five years ago. The difference is that today major enterprises are not just dabbling in Agile practices but starting to mandate them from the top down. They’re turning to frameworks like SAFe and CMMI to standardize the way they go about it. It could go a lot of different ways. I worry that Big Agile will turn into a long checklist of ingredients taken out of context.

If that becomes the norm in the largest development shops, it could be the most visible, and therefore predominant view of what Agile is. At that point the value proposition of Agile drops to almost nothing. If it can’t stay flexible, it can’t stay Agile.

Dalton, an expert on CMMI, said that the software quality industry needs an insightful standard to keep major players from weighing down the entire culture. “It’s about building an architecture that the industry can agree on, so that when the large adopters start pushing us around we’ve got something to work with. It’s a framework without a framework.”

Dalton made a case for using CMMI as a tool with which Agile program managers can maintain the strength and flexibility of their Agile rituals as organizations face the scalability challenges that surround Agile methodologies. “We’re not building our processes around CMMI, we’re using [CMMI guidelines] to strengthen our Agile ceremonies, and strengthen our Agile framework.”

He outlined several actionable pieces of advice by taking the CMMI guidelines and translating those into the Agile lexicon. For instance, the CMMI states that organizations must “Establish an organizational policy.” Dalton’s Agile version asks the question “Are we setting clear expectations across the enterprise about which Agile values, methods, and techniques will be deployed and adopted?”

He reminded software quality engineers that people and interactions are more important than tools and processes (as per the Agile Manifesto). If people don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, they can’t be expected to carry out processes correctly. We have to start out by communicating expectations effectively.

Other tips involved supporting team members with the right tools, processes and training for their specific situation. A team that’s widely distributed needs more collaboration support in terms of tools and predictable schedules than a team that’s totally collocated, for example. Dalton also gave tips on managing the processes themselves, using objective evaluations, and utilizing the feedback from retrospectives. “In study after study after study, ” Dalton said, “we find that people don’t use lessons learned in retrospectives. Start doing it today. It’ll change your life. It’s a transformative experience.”

Dalton also had the gall to put forward a new manifesto he calls the Agile Process Manifesto. It’s not a replacement for the Agile Manifesto, but an addendum aimed at process heavy corporations. The four tenets of Dalton’s manifesto are:

  1. Innovation  outweighs  process mandates
  2. Useful processes outweigh certifications and audits
  3. Collaboration outweighs coercion and punishment
  4. Flexibility and agility outweigh rigid compliance

That’s all I have time for today. But there were other good points I’d like to come back to. If I forget to add them, leave me a comment and remind me to talk about “process debt,” Van Halen, and the importance of asking questions (not necessarily in that order).

The keynote speaker, Jeff Dalton, is an expert on the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) framework. In fact his title is lead SCAMPI appraiser at Broadsword Solutions. His company is a CMMI Institute partner and has close ties to Carnegie Melon, the university that originated CMMI and still maintains the standard today.

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