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Agile visionaries vs agile pragmatists

Three weeks ago I attended the Agile Australia 2012 conference in Melbourne. Now in its fourth year and with more than 850 attendees (more than double the number from year one), I was expecting to hear a series of talks aimed at seasoned agile professionals. Rather surprisingly, what I found were many attendees still at the early adopter stage. I was hoping to hear more talks about continuous innovation and less evidence of the chasm that exists between the Agile visionaries and the agile pragmatists.

The statistics offered (thanks SEEK) and my one-on-one conversations did not reflect the confidence I expected. The Agile visionaries were still selling ideals and promoting key concepts. To try and illustrate continuous innovation, speakers drew from a history outside agile. They spoke about the creative environment, about flexible work policies exemplified by slides instead of stairs and casual clothes instead of suits. They talked about hiring the ‘right team’ and firing everyone else. I certainly appreciate the theory, but I attended Agile Australia 2012 to hear about practical applications in the multi-faceted, multi-lingual, geographically challenged corporate world that most of us work within. I wanted to hear about working software.

The case studies revealed that the most successful application of agile were staying true to the manifesto - small teams doing interesting projects, quickly, creatively, collaboratively. Most of the enterprise-level case studies revealed inherent difficulties using agile on large projects. Does this suggest that it is not possible to scale with agile alone?

I am not championing ‘part-time’ agile that looks like waterfall, where too much time is spent on documentation and people are micro-managed top-down. Still, pragmatically, in any enterprise some version of governance, accountability and visibility needs to be present to scale. We must also acknowledge that we work in companies with histories of their own and incorporating these histories creates challenges - especially if we want to see agile concepts being used outside development teams in departments where IT may not have influence.

The talks that got my attention were the very clear and concise presentations applying agile concepts to resolve a business problem without losing the enterprise completely; pragmatists creating practical pathways for people in today’s workplace. They showed how to continue working in small teams, allowing self governance and quick iterations of working software while automating the reporting and compliance aspects.

Good points were brought up by Victor Rodrigues and Craig Langenfeld in Agile practises proven in highly regulated environments. This talk focused on governance. They showed that looking closely and understanding your regulation and compliance requirements meant that you could adapt your documentation and make it leaner than you initially thought possible. Other talks that stood out were those that take agile outside of development teams, like Kurt Solarte’s Agile Sales! Is that a thing? where he proved that taking agile concepts into a sales support situation can show ongoing benefits for distributed teams.

Further practical notes that came out of Agile Australia 2012 for seasoned agile teams include:

All in all, I considered this year’s conference to be a thought provoking one. As our Australian Agile community matures I anticipate we will take the manifesto and, without compromising its principles, speak more about its evolved application within the enterprise. Hopefully the organisers will hear my plea for more pragmatic talks next year. And maybe bring the conference to Sydney too!