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The Agile Fad

In this article we call out Agile for what it is: A Management Fad. We’d even go as far to offer up a new name for it: Management by Delusion. You see, we’ve been reading up on management fads recently. What we discovered is that over the two-and-a-half decades of our careers thus far, every new idea proposed by management has turned out to be an old idea that didn’t work then and doesn’t work now.

Our reference links are below, but in this first article on Agile as a Fad, we will focus on just one – the Wikipedia entry – and show how Agile fits the definition of a fad in every respect. In the next article we will show that Agile is not just another management fad, it is a mish-masn of all of them.

The focus for now is the following tell-tale characteristics of “Management Fad” given by Wikipedia:

management_fads

So let’s go through them and see how Agile compares.

1 New jargon for existing business processes.

Does Agile have new jargon for business processes? Well, they call a notice-board a “Kanban”. Why? Because “Kanban” is transliterated Japanese meaning “notice board”. Thus, business paraphenalia is considered by Agile to work better if it has a Japanese name. The Japanese, many decades ago when their companies were actually successful, used a notice board in order to keep track of the inventory of components they had to hand, which products were on order, and which production lines were free. This was of great value for “just in time” manufacturing in the hastily rebuilt factories of post-war Japan, but one cannot really see how it would apply to software development. With software development there is typically only one copy of each component, backup copies excepted, no production-line to speak of (pressing copies of CD-ROMS to ship doesn’t really count here), and precious little inventory.

Units of code, the stock-in-trade of software development, are called “stories” in Agile, and the jargon piles up from there onwards, replacing ordinary business process descriptions with new and improved names – often names that are specifically chosen to promote Agile. For example, the process of designing products before you produce them is in Agile replaced with the perjorative jargon BUFD (big up-front design). Status meetings are called “scrums”, team meetings are “retrospectives”, and Agile planning meetings are called “grooming” but are best described with the relatively jargon-free, “complete waste of everybody’s time”.

To it’s credit, Agile is probably the most jargonized attempt at management ever devised, and that was up against some stiff competition (lean, six sigma, mbo, bpr, matrix, and so many other failed attempts to acheive success “the easy way” by apeing those who do – or rather did – things better than you, without any understanding of why they were doing so). The “Bend it Like Beckham” school of self-improvement.

2 External consultants who specialize in the implementation of the fad.

No question about it. The entire point of Agile is to sell books about Agile, and create opportunities for the authors to give consultancies. Agile’s status as a fad has created far more demand than the original authors could ever fulfill, and either they are making enough from their share of the consultancy market, or they simply lack the business skills to have franchised it.

Worse, is that Agile doesn’t just imply Agile consultants – despite the fact that you can learn all there is to know about Agile in a weekend. Fad status also opens opportunities for a multitude of unrelated consultants to get their well-shod feet back in the door and sell  the same snake-oil solutions they sold during the last fad – but with new Agile names. So now we have the Agile Coach, who recommends you bring in her friend, the Career Coach, and after you knock-off, her other friend the Life Coach who will tell you what you should be doing when you get home.

Agile swarms with consultants, none of whom are any good, have ever written a line of code, or have the faintest idea what they are talking about. They cost up to $2,000 per day, leaving little budget to hire decent software developers. The end result is usually late delivery of buggy code that cost far more than originally intended and does not meet customer requirements, otherwise known as “project failure”.

3 A certification or appraisal process performed by an external agency for a fee.

There’s a veritable second-income stream for Agile in the broad range of certificates they have on offer. None of them actually certify anything other than that you attended a two-day Powerpoint presentation given by an Agile celebrity and bought a copy of his book. These certificates cost $3,000 a pop, and if you want to get hired as a software development manager in an Agile environment you’ll be expected to own three or four of them.

Once you’ve got ten or twelve thousand dollars worth of thoroughly meaningless entry-level certificates under your belt, Agile then brings out the big guns to appraise your processes with endless queues of consultants ready to tell you the same thing: If your Agile project succeeded (unlikely) you were doing Agile right, well done, have another certificate. If your project failed (most likely), it was because you did Agile wrong somehow, but you’ll still get the certificate nonetheless. After all, you’ve paid for it.

4 Amending the job titles of existing employees to include references to the fad.

Agile takes job-titling to an entirely different level, dedicating large numbers of staff just to manage the confusing array of new titles and functions. Scrum-masters, product owners, SPLs, SSPLs, integrators, stakeholders, unspecified experts, solution architects, Agile coaches, experience creators, and so-called “independent testers” (included because a new meaning is attached to “independent” – in Agile an independent tester is an integral part of the team that shares the same goals, as opposed to an external actor giving an objective and impartial assessment).

Many of these job-titles are Agile inventions, used in no other context, and thus references to the fad.

5 Claims of a measurable business improvement via measurement of a metric (e.g. key performance indicator) that is defined by the fad itself.

Agile measures success by numbers of “story points” completed. A story point in Agile is an arbitrary assessment of the complexity of a particular task in comparision to another task. The number of story points a task is allocated is, like movement through space-time, a relative measure. No single task has an absolute number of story points, nor can it. Story points are allocated on the basis of task A is twice as complex as task B so gets twice as many story points. Anybody able to do basic algebra knows that A = 2B is always the same regardless of whether or not A = 2, or A = 200. Whatever value you give to A, B will always be half that.

Agile teams are encouraged to measure success by the absolute number of story points they completed. So in the example above, when they hand-over task A how many story points do you think get registered as “achieved”? Two, or two hundred? Look at any pro-Agile site and you will see them triumphant about the “increasing number of story points” Agile delivers, oblivious to the fact that number of story points is arbitrary and meaningless outside the context of a single “sprint” in a single project. (more Agile jargon for existing processes there, “sprint” – meaning “line item”. It can’t be avoided with Agile).

6 An internal sponsoring department or individual that gains influence due to the fad’s implementation.

In general, yes. Most organisations that adopt Agile usually have some middle-manager somewhere to whom it is a pet-project, the one that is going to catapult him or her into the execusphere. This is difficult to measure precisely, since such managers usually deny any involvement after they’ve awoken from their pipe-dream to find it didn’t work. A dead give-away, however, is when orders come down that all projects are to henceforth be Agile – then you know there’s a single sponsor behind it. Living in a dream world.

6 Big words and complex phrases (puffery).

Indeed. Kanbans, information radiators, grooming the backlog, creating experiences, the daily stand-up, sprints, velocity, the manifesto. Most of these are introduced not because they have a meaning, but because the underlying philosophy of Agile is that if you want to work as a software developer you have to buy books about Agile, purchase Agile certificates, and snooze through Agile presentations – all of which you have to pay top-dollar for. What a true-believing radical Agilista might refer to as BUFF – a “Big Up-Front Fee”. Buffery, if you will.

Conclusion

Agile is undeniably a management fad.

One thing many of us come to learn, as the Agile creators certainly did, is that many of those who make it into middle-management have reached their limit, and no longer have a clue. You can essentially sell them anything, so long as you hit the right buttons. And if you can sell them a fad, you’re going to retire very comfortably. Vast amounts of other people’s money will be lost, thousands of people will lose their jobs, entire companies will go out of business, but you will retire comfortably from it.

In our next article, we will expand on the way in which Agile re-uses and re-combines elements from many previous fads, rebadged with flashy, Zen-sounding Asiatic names. Meanwhile, here’s a little background on recent fads, and why they fail:

World’s Worst Management Fads
Where others failed: Top 10 fads