Beware The Dogma Of Agile And Lean

BY Martin Eriksson ON MAY 2, 2012

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. 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.

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.

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.

Martin Eriksson


Martin Eriksson

Martin Eriksson has 20+ years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product, and an Executive in Residence at leading private equity and venture capital fund EQT. He is also the author of best-seller Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).