Are we moving towards a post-Agile age? | August 23, 2016

Agile has been the dominant development methodology in our industry for some time now. While some teams are just getting to grips with Agile, others extended it to the point that it’s no longer recognisable as Agile. In fact, many of the most progressive design and development teams are Agile only in name. What they are actually practicing is something new, different, and innately more interesting. Something I’ve been calling Post-Agile thinking. But what exactly is Post-Agile, and how did it come about?

The age of Waterfall

Agile emerged from the world of corporate IT. In this world it was common for teams of business analysts to spend months gathering requirements. These requirements would be thrown into the Prince2 project management system, from which a detailed specification—and Gantt chart—would eventually emerge. The development team would come up with a budget to deliver the required spec, and once they had been negotiated down by the client, work would start.

Systems analysis and technical architects would spend months modelling the data structure of the system. The more enlightened companies would hire Information Architects—and later UX Designers—to understand user needs and create hundreds of wireframes describing the user interface.

Humans are inherently bad at estimating future states and have the tendency to assume the best outcome—this is called estimation bias. As projects grow in size, they also grow in surface area and visibility, gathering more and more input from the organisation. As time marches on, the market changes, team members come and go, and new requirements get uncovered. Scope creep inevitably sets in.

To manage scope creep, digital teams required every change in scope to come in the form of a formal change request. Each change would be separately estimated, and budgets would dramatically increase. This is the reason you still hear of government IT projects going over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. The Waterfall process, as it became known, makes this almost inevitable.

Untimely the traditional IT approach put too much responsibility in the hands of planners and middle managers, who were often removed from the day-to-day needs of the project.

The age of Agile

In response to the failures of traditional IT projects, a radical new development philosophy called Agile began to emerge. This new approach favoured just-in-time planning, conversations over documentation, and running code; effectively trying to counter all the things that went wrong with the typical IT project. The core tenets of this new philosophy were captured in the agile manifesto, a document which has largely stood the test of time.

As happens with most philosophies, people started to develop processes, practices and rituals to help explain how the tenets should be implemented in different situations. Different groups interpreted the manifesto differently, and specific schools started to emerge.

The most common Agile methodology we see on the web today is Scrum, although Kanban is another popular approach.

Rather than spending effort on huge scope documents which invariably change, Agile proponents will typically create a prioritised backlog of tasks. The project is then broken down into smaller chunks of activity which pull tasks from the backlog. These smaller chunks are easier to estimate and allow for much more flexibility. This opens up the possibility for regular re-prioritisation in the face of a changing market.

Agile—possibly unknowingly—adopted the military concepts of situational awareness and command intent to move day-to-day decision making from the planners to the front-line teams. This effectively put control back in the hands of the developers.

This approach has demonstrated many benefits over the traditional IT project. But over time, Agile has became decidedly less agile as dogmas crept in. Today many Agile projects feel as formal and conservative as the approaches they overthrew.

The post-Agile age

Perhaps we’re moving towards a post-Agile world? A world that is informed by the spirit of Agile, but has much more flexibility and nuance built in.

This post-Agile world draws upon the best elements of Agile, while ditching the dogma. It also draws upon the best elements of Design Thinking and even—God forbid—the dreaded Waterfall process.

People working in a post-Agile way don’t care which canon an idea comes from, as long as it works.. The post-Agile practitioner cherrypicks from the best tools available, rather than sticking with a rigid framework. Post-Agile is less of a philosophy and more of a toolkit that has been built up over years of practice.

I believe Lean Startup and Lean UX are early manifestations of post-Agile thinking. Both of these approaches sound like new brands of project management, and each has its own dogma. If you dig below the surface, both of these practices are surprisingly lacking in process. Instead they represent a small number of tools—like the business model canvas—and a loose set of beliefs such as testing hypotheses in the most economical way possible.

My initial reaction to Lean was to perceive it as the emperor’s new clothes for this very reason. It came across as a repackaging of what many designers and developers had been doing already. With a general distrust for trademarks and brand names, I naturally pushed back.

What I initially took as a weakness, I now believe is its strength. With very little actual process, designers and developers around the world have imbued Lean with their own values, added their own processes, and made it their own. Lean has become all things to all people, the very definition of a post-Agile approach.

I won’t go into detail how this relates to other movements like post-punk, post-modernism, or the rise of post-factual politics; although I do believe they have similar cultural roots.

Ultimately, post-Agile thinking is what happens when people have lived with Agile for a long time and start to adapt the process. It’s the combination of the practices they have adopted, the ones they have dropped, the new tools they have rolled in, as well as the ones they have rolled back.

Post-Agile is what comes next. Unless you truly believe that Scrum or Kanban is the pinnacle of design and development practice, there is always something new and more interesting around the corner. Let’s drop the dogma and enter this post-Agile world.

Posted at August 23, 2016 4:54 PM