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Agile development going mainstream, but care is needed

Mainstream acceptance of agile software development methods is here, process expert Mary Poppendieck told an audience at the Better Software Agile Development Practices conference. But there are pitfalls teams need to avoid as they move to agile methods, she warned.

ORLANDO, FLA. -- Author and process expert Mary Poppendieck sees evidence that agile software development techniques are gaining mainstream acceptance. But wide acceptance is not always a sign that a technology trend will be successful, she told an audience of more than 600 people yesterday at the Better Software Agile Development Practices conference.

"I believe Agile has gotten across the chasm," she said, referring to a theory that implies a demographic gulf must be crossed before products or technologies achieve mainstream use by the larger community of pragmatists.

IBM is an example of a major firm that has seen significant in-house adoption of agile methods, said Poppendieck, who led projects at process powerhouse 3M.

However, some technologies fail, even after achieving acceptance among the "crowd," she warned. Relying on some rules discussed in the recent business bestseller "The Wisdom of Crowds," by James Surowiecki [Doubleday, 2004], Poppendieck urged Agile teams to assure diversity of opinion, enable independent decision making, and find ways to aggregate the individual opinions of team members -- among other steps -- if they want to succeed with agile processes.

Poppendieck said there are specific pitfalls to avoid in order for agile methods to ultimately thrive. Among those: avoid copying what successful companies are doing.

"There is a bias to follow what everyone else is doing," she said. "The more influences we exert on each other, the more likely we are to believe the same things and make the same mistakes. The thing is to think for yourself; your situation is different."

You also don't want to insist that everyone follows a standard process, Poppendieck said. "That doesn't leverage the intelligence of your people. They don't get their own ides into how something should be done," she said. "You want to draw on local knowledge."

Another potential agile pitfall, she said, is the tendency of small groups to emphasize consensus. Managers should be aware that this can tend to suppress initiative necessary in the agile environment.

"Don't disregard the outliers," Poppendieck said, suggesting the input of gadflies can lead to innovative solutions.

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