Living 4 hours away, I don’t get to attend very many Toronto Agile events. Thus, when I do, it always feel like a mini-reunion. They’re an opportunity to catch up with old friends, while making some new ones. Often what I find interesting about these “un-conferences” (aka “Open Space”) is not what is being talked about any given year, but the trends from year to year. How is the community continuing to evolve?
The topic of the event was ‘The Future of Agile’ - a hot and sometimes controversial topic these days. Last year, some in the community either abandon or seemed ashamed to use the word ‘Agile’ when describing their profession. One of the authors of the agile manifesto even published an article entitled ‘Agile is Dead (Long Live Agility)’. I can certainly understand these feelings. The ‘Agile’ brand has been dragged through the mud in many places. Indeed, in a company with a traditional hierarchical process-driven structure, attempting to ‘go agile’ will often exacerbate existing problems, causing a lot of stress for all involved. This is partly by design, with onus on the company to address these problems, but too often they don’t and everyone suffers. Companies in search of an ‘agile’ silver bullet continue to end up with self-inflicted wounds. The question is, with so many wounded, where does this leave the agile community?
I was pleasantly surprised by the number and quality of the attendees this year - up from last year. There seemed to be a much larger contingent of those for whom this was their first ever agile or open-space event. That was awesome! While there weren’t as many topics proposed, I believe there was actually more variety this year than last.
The first session I attended was entitled, ‘Stop Pushing Agile’, and it couldn’t have been titled any better. It was a confessional among change agents of the mistakes they had made in advocating for agility in the name of various ‘transformations’. We discussed the many ways we had done damage to the people, teams, and ourselves by ‘pushing’ processes and practices in the name of ‘agile’, while not truly understanding their problems or points of view. Often this was due to the principle change agent not being part of the change - for example, a manager or consultant telling his devs to ‘use TDD’ or some other practice, without being able to sit down with the team to see what they were seeing and how they felt.
We then moved on to success stories. A theme quickly emerged around working more closely with people - understanding their situations and having empathy for their situations, hopes and fears. Creating a safe environment to experiment and fail was key. The Dan Pink motivators of ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’ were brought up. Sometimes avoiding all agile ‘lingo’ helped to have a better conversation about the actual situation rather than jumping to perceived ‘agile’ solutions. I believe Michael Sahota will create a more detailed blog post about the discussion, which I’ll link here when it’s available. His Whole Hearted Manifesto is also relevant.
My only regret from that session was that many of the people who needed it most - those just starting with ‘transformations’ were mostly not present. They were naturally more drawn to the sessions that focused on processes. I probably would have been at their stage of the journey as well - as the usual question is how do we make our existing processes agile? They’ll likely have to travel the same path.
Still on the theme of people, my other favourite was a session around mentorship in the software industry. Christopher Saunders led a great chat among software professionals around how we can grow ourselves through each other, and in particular grow the practice of mentorship. I am delighted that this topic is receiving more discussion in different circles. The focus on mentoring is one of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to the Software Craftsmanship movement. I wish I had more and better mentors when I entered the industry. I wish we had an apprenticeship model when I first became a software developer. A lot of others felt the same way. We can’t go back in time and change those things, but we can start a movement that makes it easier for those interested to learn from each other, and obtain mentorship when they need it.
So how about the future of the agile community? It appears stronger than ever. If anything, this community is moving into a more mature phase of its existence, where the focus is less on particular practices, less on preaching and more on finding ways to improve together as a community of innovative professionals.
Regardless of what happens to branding, the core of the movement - those who are constantly looking for new and better ways to deliver software, delight customers and enjoy life continue to be a massive source of inspiration and innovation for those who look for it. Whatever happens to the ‘agile’ as a brand, I’m confident that this cauldron of knowledge will continue to burn well into the future.