Agile 2011 Needed More In The Middle

Fiction writers I've met have said that the hardest section of a novel to write is not the beginning or ending but everything that happens in between. The middle chapters trace the course of the protagonist's struggle in way that must be both engaging and credible. The story of how people adopt Agile successfully also has a beginning, middle, and end. The middle part here, too, poses some of the most difficult challenges. The first chapter is a grabber, with teams energetically and fervently doing daily stand-ups, blazing through sprints, christening a product owner, prioritizing their backlogs, and living through all the other exciting events that happen at the very beginning.

And then the plot takes a different turn. Success at the small team level is fantastic, but how do you fit into a development organization? What if you need to work with an offshore team? How do you maintain velocity when builds take several hours or maybe even a full day? Is it possible to deal with compliance requirements without a significant amount of automation? How do you work better with the ops team so that the speed of deployment matches the speed of development?

Since Agile went mainstream, the number of teams reaching the difficult middle chapters of Agile adoption has increased markedly. Both I and my colleague Dave West answer questions about the middle phases every day. Many of these questions also arise during the yearly conference that the Agile Alliance holds in the US. (This year, it's in Salt Lake City to mark the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Agile Manifesto in nearby Snowbird.)

Unfortunately, this year's Agile conference isn't emphasizing the middle chapters of Agile adoption. The agenda is full of content pitched at the Agile neophyte, which is good, since there are still a lot of them out there (and a lot of them attending this conference). There are also plenty of outlets for the highly experienced Agilists, the people who have finished the basic story and are now moving on to the sequels. The intermediate levels are represented in the agenda to a much lesser degree.

Many of the intermediate-level concerns are technical. Continuous integration, technical debt, and test automation have a much smaller human dimension than timeboxing or user stories. The agenda for Agile 2011 has covered fewer of the technical issues than the human ones, which is a pretty good indicator that the middle chapters of Agile aren't getting much attention.

The first keynote address set the tone. Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina, gave a good overview of recent findings in biology and psychology about the effects of positive emotions. While good vibrations might be a contributor to Agile success, the connection is neither direct nor obvious.

One of the keys of Agile's success was praxis, the close marriage of theory and practice. Nothing was oblique about Agile, even if it did require a mix of values and methods, new attitudes toward work and new ways of doing work. Other methodologies like CMMI told you what you should be doing (often in overwhelming detail). Well-intentioned concepts like “co-creation of value with customers” lack any clear program for action. In contrast, Agile told you that you should embrace change and uncertainty and then instructed you how, through Agile practices, to adapt to change and uncertainty. The more we stray from praxis, the harder we make it on beginning, intermediate, and advanced Agile practitioners.

Fortunately, it's not hard to address this issue in next year's agenda. Many of the developers who are enthusiastic about Agile are equally interested in treating their work as a craft. Making the craft of software development a track in next year's conference, or even a theme of the conference, might steer the conference toward many of the intermediate-level issues that didn't get enough attention this year.

Just to be clear, I'm definitely not saying that the Agile 2011 conference has gone completely in the wrong direction. It's still a great event, one of the best that I regularly attend. Many of the new ideas this year, such as the executive day and the embedded software track, are very worthy additions to a lot of high-value content. The audience just needs a bit less of topics like social media and Agile and more like what kind of tools investments will help teams save their agility from the weight of regulatory requirements.

No story can include every idea that the author finds interesting. Nor can it skip over details essential to the narrative. The story of Agile, as told through the Agile conference agenda, needs the beginning, middle, and end to be strong and compelling.

Comments

Agile - The middle bit.

Tom

I would disagree on one point. The Agile20xx does not cater for the advanced practitioners. That is why they have stayed away. Advanced Practitioners are at the edge and mainly learning through experimentation or discussing with other advanced practitioners. Many advanced practitioners no longer see the benefit of attending the Agile20xx conferences as they are more geared towards selling to newbies. There are a number of advanced practitioners who attend but that is because they are selling, or building a brand, or just go to hang out with friends (something I did for a few years).

Perhaps the problem for the "middle" is that there were no advanced practitioners for them to share stories with.

I'm not sure the software craftsmanship movement addresses the right problem. My issue is not with the motivated top X%, its with the Y% who do not care.

Regards

Chris

Agreed...

I have a lot of good discussions with the advanced practitioners at this conference. That's independent of the sessions, which do not have any substantial content for Agile veterans.

I couldn't agree with you more about the idea of sharing stories. I'd apply that to every level of content, not just the intermediate to advanced. Every presentation should include at least one case study. I heard a couple that didn't, and the quality suffered. Praxis, praxis, praxis, if I didn't say that enough in the post.

I was a first timer this

I was a first timer this year. I loved the conference but admit that by the end of the week I was wondering whether or not I'd be as excited about the content a few years from now as I was this year. Then thursday evening I had an unplanned hour long (middle part) conversation in the open jam area with an expert that more or less justified my attendance for the whole week. seems to me the intermediates/experts are currently served by the coaching/open jam area. I'd say also that session seating arrangement helps encourage the intermediate level discussions (you don't get the same level of knowledge sharing at conferences where everyone is just lined up facing the speaker and being blasted by the information fire hose). I'm assuming that as people reach the intermediate/expert level, they are likely getting more out of the side discussions than the sessions. Just a guess of course but that was my impression.

I agree...

Neil

I agree. The most interesting conversations have allways been in the corridors and the open space. The last four Agile20xx conferences I went to were spent in the corridors, bars and open space. Unfortunately the number of experienced practitioners has dwindled over the years. Many of those attending are focused on finding business or building brand which means they do not have time for those valuable conversations. After you have attended a few of the conferences you will probably have connected with the majority of the people that you find interesting. Then the conversations will take place on skype and e:mail. At which point, the value of the conference is diminished.

Hope you continue to enjoy Agile20xx. I went for several years and enjoyed it a great deal. Towards the end it was just to meet friends. The community learning has pretty much stopped.

Chris

Great stuff

@Tom - couldn't agree more on the lack of great / amazing content about middle of the road Agile transformation stuff. A lot of early stuff on the market, and a lot of customer success stories around ROI available. Not much - around the pain in the middle.

Sorry I missed ya this year man. I am sure we would have had a great conversation. Cheers

A counter

Tom we could always do a better job and yours isn't the first voice to ask for more technical content. Perhaps you can give us a better idea of what you would drop? As a former Stage Producer, frequent attendee and some-time speaker its hard to find the right balance on each stage. On the coaching stage we put alot of thought into finding advanced as well as introductory topics. What I struggled with was finding good introductory sessions for new coaches. So I find your thoughts quite revealing.

In addition I'm reminded that Jerry Wienberg once said that all technical problems are really human problems - hence my interest in studying human dynamics, leadership and creativity. Our session wasn't technical (Creativity for Agile Teams), but is relevant for teams that have hit their first plateau. I think you will find the same for many others.

If you disagree volunteer next year as a Stage Reviewer and help advocate for more technical content.

We're a large community and no matter what we do the conference will be wrong for some people.

Cheers
Mark Levison