One of my email signatures is from André Gide:
Everything that needs to be said has already been said.
But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.
Today, let’s think about the fact that everyone is listening.
Surely everyone of consequence in software development has heard of “Agile” and “Scrum” by now. A very large percentage of software development organizations would say that they are actually “doing” Agile or Scrum. Many of those are having difficulty, and quite a few are having serious difficulty, of the kind I call Dark Agile or Dark Scrum.
How many are “a very large percentage”, “many”, and “quite a few”? We do not know, and we’ll come back to that below and in a follow-up article. From the emails and tweets and blogs I run across, there are plenty of people having trouble.
Some of these teams have active “agile coaches”, and I hope most of those are improving. I am aware of situations where that’s not the case, even at the hands of very good coaches. At a guess, somewhere in those organizations, someone important isn’t doing what the coaches recommend, isn’t doing what any of us would recommend.
One such well-coached team was told that I might visit them. They asked “Who is Ron Jeffries?” Now I’m not such an egomaniac that I think everyone should know me, but I’d kind of hope that a well-coached Scrum team would be aware of the Agile Manifesto, and one of its most prolific authors. I’m not sure just what we should conclude here, but it’s part of the inspiration for this article. These people who have never heard of me are not thriving in Scrum. What is my responsibility toward them?
I’m here to suggest that I do have a responsibility toward them, and that everyone in “Agile” has, and that you probably have as well.
Some of these troubled teams have CSM members, or PSM members, or CSPO or Advanced-CSM members. They remain troubled. To some extent, we’re not surprised: it’s hard to make a team really click at Agile, and let’s be realistic, a CSM or PSM is not as yet an expert at Scrum or Agile, and even if they were, it’s still difficult to get teams really purring along.
Some of these teams have members who have read a book or looked at a web site or seen some tweets.
Some teams, I suspect, have never come near any substantive, legitimate Scrum- or Agile-related material at all. I suspect they’re working in some kind of Faux-Agile fashion based on a long chain of whispers, a long way from any kind of credible source.
What is our responsibility toward these people who have never heard of us, never heard a word of anything we’ve ever said?
Now I have long said that I don’t take responsibility for what happens to people who don’t take my advice. Frankly, that does make a lot of sense to me: if I tell you to test your code, and you don’t, well, dude, I did tell you, didn’t I?
But was I clear enough? Was I persuasive enough? Were my instructions somehow insufficient or vague?
I mostly just try to be understood. I do think that everyone gets to choose what they choose, and gets to live with the results. But I do think I have good things to offer and I work to have the best possible chance of having those things understood by my listeners, so that they’ll have the best possible chance of looking at the ideas, maybe trying them, and then choosing what to do.
We started a thought, which started the whole world trying …
Channeling the BeeGees for a moment, we in the Agile Software Development movement, and related movements, started a thought that started the whole world trying. Most of the Authors, and most of those who’ve joined with us, have continued uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. And we’ve done our very best to say what we’ve learned, and to say it clearly and in forms that give everyone a chance to hear and understand.
And that’s great, and I’m proud of all of us.
But it is the game of Telephone here, and by the time our ideas, however well or poorly we’ve managed to express them, by the time they get to ears a few stops down the line, they are no longer so clear, so rich, so easy to understand. And, let’s face it, Agile’s not easy to do even if you understood all of it, which none of us does. So these poor folks at the end of the chain hear a garbled message, take it up part-way into their minds, and try to do what they understand.
It’s no wonder that they get in trouble.
But what does that have to do with thee and me?
Now my guess is that more than half the people trying what they think of as “Agile” are doing poorly and improving at best slowly, and probably not improving at all.
And my point is, that’s a guess. I’d put money down on it, but it’s still a guess.
Get some information
One thing that should happen is that the Scrum Alliance, and Scrum.org, and Scrum.inc, and the Agile Alliance, and probably the SAFe consortium or whatever it’s called, and all the big consulting companies who are pushing Agile should do an extensive survey, not just of their clients, but of as many organizations as they can reach, not to prove that Scrum-A is better than Scrum-B, but to find out how close to anything really Agile these organizations are.
Some will be very close. Some will be very far. At a guess, the trained ones will tend to be closer to success than the untrained ones. The ones who have been reading on the subject will be better than those who were just commanded to do some “Agile” thing. Again, these are guesses.
I hope to get a chance to chat with the leaders of some of the big “Agile” organizations, and will try to influence them to get this information. I’ll try to push them not to check their client base but to look well beyond it, to the people who’ve never heard of any of them, but who are still trying, somehow, to do and be “Agile”.
Teach beyond our reach
The other challenge is for all of us who write, speak, tweet, or link about Agile and related ideas. Let’s all try to recognize that an attenuated, garbled version of what we say does reach people who’ve never even heard of us, whom we’ll never get a chance to help directly. And these people, with the best of will, will try to do what they hear, because they hear it might be better, and because they sincerely want to do better.
Recognizing that, let’s try, try, try again to express ourselves so clearly that even these remote listeners have the best possible chance to hear and understand.
I’ll welcome hearing ideas that can help with this concern. Even more, I’d welcome your taking up the quest and helping.