Beware The Dogma Of Agile And Lean

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The public discourse around startups, product management and UX has become a touch dogmatic for my taste lately. If you’re not following the Lean Startup(TM) to the letter, holding daily scrums, doing continuous integration, embracing failure or (pick your own buzzword) you’re apparently doing something wrong.

But I think this sort of dogmatic thinking is what is wrong, and loses sight of the principles that led to the development of those techniques and tools in the first place.

On Agile
While I agree with the values set forth in the agile manifesto wholeheartedly, I fear the label has become a byword for various processes – from Scrum to Kanban – that promote process over principle. I think there’s a huge difference between being agile and following Agile – the former gives you the flexibility to embrace and adapt to change without being held up by a process, while the latter often locks you into a dogmatic thought process. Funny how much a capital A changes things.

On Lean Startup(TM)
Regrettably this dogmatic thinking has only continued as we move from agile as a development methodology to lean as a business methodology. As much as I agree with the fundamentals of Lean Startup(TM) and respect Eric Ries as a startup mentor, author and speaker (I had him speak at a ProductTank after all!), I find it troubling that the term is trademarked. It just makes me think about Six Sigma, Prince2 and all those lovely corporate methodologies that just produce clipboard-wielding, process-step-checking robots instead of inspiring free thinking.

Always go back to first principles
The Agile manifesto itself says to value “responding to change over following a plan” and what is Scrum, Kanban, Customer Development etc if not a plan? I think the fundamental core principle in both methodologies is to be adaptable, embrace change and learn as you go what works best for your customer, your product and your market.

If I was the religious type I'd be nailing my protest to a cathedral door - but I didn't have time to validate 95 arguments with my users.

And if you’re using those principles to define what you do, why aren’t you using them to define how you do it? Instead of slavishly following the word of the book, any book, be adaptable, embrace change and learn as you go what works for you and your team. If you focus on those principles first, and the methodologies second, you will ultimately be more successful.

Before I get flamed to oblivion I want to be clear – I agree with the fundamental principles behind Agile and Lean Startup(TM), but believe a lot of people are following the letter of the word instead of understanding the intent. And others are talking the talk without walking the walk – but that’s a post for another time.

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17 Responses to Beware The Dogma Of Agile And Lean

  1. Gareth Lloyd May 2, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    Martin – I agree 100%.  Takes me back to my university law degree and understanding the difference between the UK vs Euro legal systems – principle-based vs rule-based. We should be more adherent to the way to think and behave, and the outcomes we want; than to strictly-codified organisational routines.  Arguably, the organisations with the “purest” and most deeply-embedded Agile organisational routines are in danger of being the least agile.

  2. Ben Andrews May 2, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    At a Product Tank last year I think Tom Loosemore described it as ‘agile jazz’, or something similar, which summed it up well for me. Great article. 

    • Martin Eriksson May 3, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Thanks, yes that description is spot on – take the bits you like and that work for you and reshape it to make new music…

      • Erin August 28, 2013 at 4:53 am #

        Just don’t call is Agile. I worked at a company that was obsessed with calling our methodology Agile, when it really wasn’t. It had aspects of Agile, with Scrum and then a little waterfall thrown in for good measure. Does it even have to have a name? Just do it! and when it not longer works, change it!

  3. Ben Andrews May 2, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    At a Product Tank last year I think Tom Loosemore described it as ‘agile jazz’, or something similar, which summed it up well for me. Great article. 

  4. Lucy Spence May 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    Amen

  5. Liz Rice May 2, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    Yes, couldn’t agree more.  One of the key principles of Agile is supposed to be getting the best out of the team, and I think you’re not likely to be doing that when everything is bound up in formal processes which stop people actually applying real thought to what they’re doing, not to mention taking all the joy out of it all!  

  6. Brendan Quinn May 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    Hear hear… A great related quote, from one of the leading lights of Agile as heard at QCon SF back in 2008 (remembered via my blog post http://blog.clueful.com.au/2008/11/some-agile-notes.html)

    “we’ve gone from one dogma [waterfall] to another dogma [scrum and XP] — I thought the whole point was that we were supposed to be *agile*. What happened to *thinking*?”

  7. David Farquhar May 22, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    Martin,

    A very thoughtful and balanced article, thanks. I’ve been founding, investing in and mentoring start-ups for 20 years now, have hired many Product Managers and have been teaching it to companies & at BSc/MSc level for the past 6 years or so.
    I have heard Eric speak twice – entertaining but somewhat formulaic and my fear is he’s simply creating a one size fits all mentality based on a methodology that applies when your product isn’t mission critical (B2C) to smooth the furrowed brows of technical founders who really don’t like engaging with the market but just want to build “stuff”.

    What I am finding is that this engenders a tendency to want to huddle up with the engineering team rather than getting out into the field and finding out what the market really wants. I am seeing this tendency in companies from pre-revenue start-up to €100M revenue plus.

    Far from slowing you down its obvious that being out in the field can actually get you to the end point (a product people really want and will pay for in large numbers??) faster. I am becoming more and more convinced that we have the tools to deliver efficient Market Engagement right under our noses and just need to look differently to see them.

    Hopefully this debate will help us find a happy place between the two worlds. I am running a class for 20 start-ups in Edinburgh today by inviting them to have just such a debate in the style of Michael Sandel, the Public Philosopher http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01fbj97

    I’ll report back…

  8. Janita Han June 24, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    I am starting to think that some great ideas need to have a gestation period, and that taking time to analyse things and reconfigure isn’t that bad a thing. Lean Startup is obsessed with speed and learning, but slow and learning might not be a terrible thing!

  9. Andrew Cairns August 24, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    If I’m honest, I actually think I’m guilty of this at the moment. I think I’ve adopted this attitude for a few reasons, mostly the difficulties I’ve faced trying to get the startup I currently work for to adopt anything remotely Agile.

    Reading this article has helped me gain a bit of perspective – but im still bitter! :)

  10. Zebra June 6, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    Thank you – I’ve cracked jokes about Agile Nazis and also been flamed out by folks who don’t appreciate irony.

  11. 0tiger1 September 25, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    I’ve noticed that when things at a startup aren’t going well, and the startup adopts some official agile method such as scrum, that’s when over-adherence is the worst. It’s like clinging to a life raft after a storm, even when you’ve floated up next to a nice safe beach.

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