No unified theory of agile (Agile mindset cont.)

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Continuing my quest of “The Agile Mindset” I’ve been searching for a metaphor to put all the different ideas on agile into order. To cut to the chase: there isn’t one.

As much as I would love to boil “agile” down to one thing, or even a handful of key concepts and I don’t think there will ever be a single unified theory of agile. As I said before with the elephant example, everyone sees something different. Depending on where you are standing, the problems you face today, your own history and area of knowledge, and your own world view you are going to see and emphasise different aspects of “The Agile Mindset.” And you know what? that is a good thing!

First I tried thinking of Agile as the layers of an onion. The outside skin is the word “agile” – there is a valid reason for saying the agile mindset is there in the dictionary definition of the word agile: able to move, think and understand quickly, be nimble and subtle in movements, alert and observant when looking at whats happening and sharp when thinking. But that is only the outside layer, it is very general.

The agile manifesto would be the second layer. While the manifesto is specific to software it doesn’t require too much thought to generalise it to other domains. Actually, it is a bit too easy and there are more attempts to generalise it than there are people who have attempted to generalise it. Plus, as I’ve written before, the manifesto is over 20 years old, those who cling to it sound like Supreme Court Justices trying to read meaning into a document written in a different age.

And what are the next layers, and in what order? Does last responsible moment come above or below cost of delay? Is test driven more important than time-boxing? Are work-in-progress limits a version of time-boxing or an alternative to time-boxing?

And what is at the centre? For me it is learning but I can imagine people who will say it is People – perhaps manifested through Weinberg’s “Its always a people problem” quote – I’ve written about that one too, the People Problem Problem. Personally I think McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y could be a candidate, which raises the question of agile’s fellow travellers – beyond budgeting, system thinking, Lean, and Mintzberg’s theory of emergent strategy.

I wondered if agile could be thought of as a brick wall, with each idea forming a brick, and then the whole being more than the sum of the parts. But that falls down (sorry for the pun!) on the layering problem. Which ideas are foundations and which decorative?

Similarly, I toyed with The House of Agile with different ideas represented by different rooms but that metaphor quickly runs into problems too.

In a way this makes the search fo One Agile Mindset even more desirable – the search for a grand unified theory of everything if you like. There must be something out there that combines all of this!

Ye the search for the unifying theory also highlights how damn difficult this is. Intellectually it is hard to accept that “the agile mindset” is a bunch of different ideas which different people interpret differently.

But you know what? Accepting that agile is diverse is itself agile – agile is not one idea, it is many, accepting that and valuing those different ideas mean embracing diversity and that itself is agile. Agile is what you want it to be because through those diverse we find alternative ways of viewing and learning. Agile doesn’t stand still, agile is punk, at its best agile is democracy.

Unfortunately that makes it hard to explain.

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