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Agile development growing, but problems remain

Despite success among businesses such as IBM, Agile development is still in its infancy. Adaptation and reorganization practices are making strides in the way of improvement.

Agile, the methodology and the movement remains a work in progress. For certain, the movement is more organized since the writing of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, with organizations like the Agile Alliance and the Scrum Alliance. And large, veteran enterprises such as IBM are having success with agile software development. But in keeping with the iterative nature that is at the core of agile, and the ability to adapt to change, other influences such as lean and Kanban, as well as the unique needs of organizations, are all reshaping what is "agile."

"There's a lot of adaptation," acknowledged Alistair Cockburn, a signatory of the Manifesto and founder of Humans and Technology in Salt Lake City. "On the methodology front, there are a lot more people comfortable in their own skins doing homebrew agile, fitting in the basic principles and values and not following a brand. There's much greater acceptance of that, and it's good and healthy. I'm heartened by people who use [agile] and say it works, and they wouldn't go back."

But, he added, "We're seeing a number of people saying 'We did it, we're not sure how agile it is, but we have a net improvement, and we're keeping going.' It's good to have those kinds of things happening."

Among agile methodologies, Scrum has gained the dominant mindshare, observers acknowledge. At the Scrum gathering in Orlando earlier this year, Scrum co-creator and keynote speaker Ken Schwaber said the alliance had 51,005 members and 47 user groups worldwide.

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Scrum "has completely dwarfed all other agile methodologies in terms of penetration of consciousness," Cockburn said. "The Scrum lingo is pervasive."

"Scrum is popular from a visibility point of view," said Phillip Cave, director of project services at Velocity Partners, an outsourcer and consulting organization based in Bellevue, Wash. "The Scrum Alliance has done a good job."

Phil Brock, managing director of the Agile Alliance, which he said has 4,000 to 5,000 members, agrees. "Scrum has the most visibility, which is a byproduct of the Scrum Alliance. There are other methodologies out there working in conjunction with Scrum. Most often you don't see Scrum only—there's Scrum plus."

While Scrum has gained mindshare, Extreme Programming (XP) "has pretty much disappeared, in a sense," Cockburn said. "The technical practices [of XP] are hard to pull off. It's a highly disciplined methodology, so there are pockets of it, but it hasn't got a market force."

Some of the original signers

of the Agile Manifesto founded the Agile Alliance. The mission of the Agile Alliance, taken from their website, is “to support those who explore and apply agile principles and practices to make the software industry productive, humane, and sustainable.”

Todd Olson, product line manager at Rally Software in Boulder, Colo., said "XP has a large prescribed set of practices, so there's less freedom in how the process fits your organization. Scrum is more flexible. There are some rules to doing Scrum correctly, but fewer than XP."

According to Brock, however, "There's a whole lot of XP happening in northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, and there's a lighter adoption of Scrum there."

The Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM) movement in U.K., he said, also employs XP along with other methodologies. DSDM is based on the rapid application development (RAD) methodology and is an iterative and incremental approach that emphasizes continuous user involvement.

Cockburn said he is getting renewed interest in Crystal, an agile methodology he developed. "Scrum contains no advice and isn't supposed. Ken [Schwaber] says it's a mirror; you hold it up to your organization and it shows you where you're weak, but it doesn't tell you what to do. Crystal is less hard-nosed abut delivering every month but contains more advice. There are seven properties; it says pay attention to and diagnose with these properties. It gives a diagnostic tool, and comes with a lot of suggested techniques and ideas."

When it comes to agile, clearly, "there's not one size fits all, Scrum or any process," said Rally's Olson. We're seeing more discussions around lean and agile; more about Kanban." And, he added, "We do see traditional IT organizations as they more to agile incorporate some procedures they had in place for governance, risk management—things a large IT organization can't get rid of. They can't stop worrying about Sarbanes-Oxley, so they have to incorporate things into the backlog in agile to maintain compliance. I wouldn't say that's not agile—it's all about how you fit it in and adjust things."

Velocity Partner's Cave said some of their customers are re-evaluating their agile practices in order to get better, and the principles of lean are coming into the conversation, he said. Lean software development is based on the Toyota Production System principles of eliminating waste and building only what you need.

Kanban, a signaling system to trigger action, also developed by Toyota, is gaining favor among agile practitioners as well, Cave said. In software development, Kanban is about managing the flow of a feature or system in the queue. Based on availability, a certain role, say a developer, will "pull" from the designer if he or she has the capacity, or the designer may push to the queue for the developer to work on, Cave explained.

Cockburn attributes some of the interest in Kanban and lean to what he calls a "stabilization" of agile. "It feels like a resettling, and what that brings is a whole bunch of people who don't like stability. It causes them to branch out and look for new things."

Kanban, he agrees, is one of the current hot topics. "It reverses the core assumptions of agile development, which from my perspective is a lot of fun." Instead of the time boxes, which include planning, estimates, meetings and wrap-up, he said Kanban "banishes all of the above, and instead you have an active work area and you move an assignment into the active work area, and move it out when it's done. You limit how many things you can do in an active work area."

When the work area is full, that provides information about where things are stuck in the organization, he said. "When you pull something out as done, you can extrapolate backward to the waiting queue; like one month to delivery from here. Executives can look at their favorite thing, and see there's a month and half until that comes out. People are advocating this very strongly."

Cockburn said it challenges the assumptions of agile, which he said is a good thing. "But all the rest of agile holds up."

There is still excitement around agile, Cave said. "I haven't run across companies at large that don't see the value in it, but individuals, certainly," he said. He attributes that to fear of change and exposure some individuals may have. "They don't want you move their cheese."

Cockburn said he believes there is a limit to adoption. Agile "fundamentally brings ambiguity and uncertainty into project life; what you need six months from now will change," he said. "As penetration increases, sooner or later you will hit a limit of what ordinary people will tolerate in terms of uncertainty and flux."

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