Has Agile jumped the shark?

The Agile community is in danger.  As someone who has been around Agile for a very long time I find myself asking; Has Agile abandoned its core premise and begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery.

First the punch line.  Go to Wikipedia and search for "Jumping the Shark". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark   Here's an excerpt;

"Jumping the shark is a widely used idiom, first employed to describe a moment in the evolution of a television show, characterized by absurdity, when a particular show abandons its core premises and begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery."

I am old enough to remember the television show referenced.  Happy days.  Specifically the episode where the Fonzie, a character that for the most part was endearing and, for kids of a certain age, epitomized cool and confident, with just a bit of the leather-jacket-wearing-don't-listen-to-your-parents rebel mixed in, was inexplicitly required to literally jump over a shark on water skis.  Indulge me in a bit of revisionist history as I prefer the often retold, but unfortunately inaccurate version that has Fonzie  jumping a shark tank on his motorcycle.  Keep this image in mind, we will be coming back to it.

Agile began as an uprising.  Individuals coming together to  ever so quietly rail against the way things were.  Some who are now nearly household names and others that were, and remain even today nearly nameless, focused raw emotion, real world tested skills, and a penchant for philosophy and patterns to create the Agile Manifesto and the supporting principles.   Without intentional marketing the ideas took on a life of their own.  Individuals became groups and soon whole communities.  The earliest Agile conferences brought likeminded agilest together to debate quality, technology, and philosophy.  The early gatherings  while serious in intent, never failed to loose site of a core tenant at that time.  Great software was a team sport.  Inclusive, open, and adaptable it seemed to be inherently fun to build, fun to use, and fun to talk about.  

Agile hadn't yet moved from early adopters to main stream.  Agile leaders and the growing number of followers were innovating.  Much like the early seasons of Happy Days, being different engaged an audience, being entertaining grew that audience at an impressive rate.  Somewhere around the fourth conference (and the fourth season of the TV show) things took off.  The number of attendees skyrocketed.  Agile was being discussed well beyond the original community.  If they had the funding they could have easily sold lunch boxes and action figures.  Happy Days did.

Not much after the 6th Agile conference you could begin to hear it.  The soft rumble of the motorcycle idling just out of sight.  The Agile community was splitting into camps and worse yet, being Agile became a way to make money.  For some, it was absolutely justified.  They had taken the freedoms, the open mindedness, and the focus on delivering high quality value to heart and were measurably better at delivering software. [Short aside; no one was really able to measure Agile in the real world until many years later when Scott Ambler was able to conduct well-formed surveys.]  Others were seemingly focused on making Agile bigger, branding, marketing, training , and certification were the new foci.  Knowing how to help others be Agile was becoming more important than actually being agile.  It was as if you could see the crew pulling the shark tank onto the conference floor.  The ramp was there and that idling engine was becoming a full throttle roar.

The conference was consistently beating prior year attendance records.  Agile books were top sellers.  New generations wanted to know how to be agile.  They needed to know how to be agile.  Software had become more complex and projects were, at least in the popular consciousness, failing at unprecedented rates.   Large system contract bid packages began requiring Agile teams as a condition of award.  Agile was booming.  Being process focused, having a methodology, made Agile look like a necessary and undeniably correct way to deal with the chaos.  No longer relegated to ideals of a few radicals it had become a full-fledged industry.  And just then, like the fictional character it was to become, our Agile motorcycle began a full throttle approach toward the shark tank.

The long slow fall from Fonz (cool and capable)  to Fozzy (the bear Muppet empty of real value but oh so entertaining in his own way) happened with little resistance.  The philosophy, the fun, the ideals of being agile (with a small a) was now an industry with rules, dues, and on-going attempts to define those who are Agile from those not deemed worthy of being Agile (with a capital A).  Barely a shadow of its former self Agile is now doing the unthinkable.  Agile is performing.  Agile has come to need an audience and Agile seems to believe that when it lands on the other side of that shark tank it will be met with applause.   And it might … others in the now very large, completely main stream Agile camp will applaud their hero.  What they won't get is respect, at least not mine. Not for that.

The originally conceived agile is still out there, doing good, helping people, delivering software.  Free from the prescriptive methodologies and in many ways providing value well beyond developers and the software industry.  These quiet champions continue without regard for the circus that the Agile brand has become.  They are smart enough to leverage the popularity of Agile without becoming distracted by the applause, the self-congratulating, and business driven industry parts.

Just like Happy Days after the Fonz jumped the shark, Agile still believes it's popular, even famous.  And like the television show it will undoubtedly continue on for many years trying to meet its own expectations  and recapture the greatness it had if only for a moment.  I do hope it will.  I will continue, in whatever small way I can, to do what I can to support agile .  If only to draw attention to the shark still in its tank, still swimming in small circles, ramp and motorcycle long gone, wondering what the noise was and whether its next meal will come suddenly from above or not.


Comments (4)
  1. Dave McLean says:

    I believe pure agile will never exist – it just doesn't work in any organisation. But the principles and many of the practices are and always will be a great improvement on the traditional big design up front model – I think the majority of the agile community just needs to curb its enthusiasm – chill out and make what they can of it without trying to achieve Agile Utopia

  2. Nick says:

    A very well-thought-out article.  I'd like to add one dimension: quality of programmer.  Agile was begotten by very good programmers who were constrained and in some cases hobbled by the software development life cycle and structure.  Successful agile projects depended on these "star programmers."  As less-skilled craftsman attempted to work in an agile environment, they stumbled…the resulting "processes" to correct for these errors are, I think, the shark you're writing about!

  3. SaintGimp says:

    It's the same old story: the innovators and early adopters come up with a great idea, spend tremendous amounts of time evangelizing it to the masses, and when it finally goes mainstream they gasp in dismay at what that does to their finely-crafted ideals.  Yeah, it gets messy.  Yeah, there's a lot of people who are missing the core principles.  Deal with it . . . this is what happens to every movement throughout history.

    The thing is, the value that first attracted the innovators and early adopters is still there.  It didn't go away.  The principles articulated in the Agile Manifesto haven't been suddenly invalidated.  I don't think it's particularly helpful to strike an attitude of "Agile is sooooo yesterday" without having something better to replace it with.  All that does is give the late-adopter holdouts more ammunition to say, "See, I told you that Agile stuff was pure hokem.  Waterfall cowboy coding forever, baby!"

    What's next?  Where do we go from here?

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