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Beware The Dogma Of Agile And Lean "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 2 September 2017 True Agile, Dogma, First Principles, Lean, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 476 Product Management 1.904
· 2 minute read

Beware The Dogma Of Agile And Lean

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.

Comments 28

Hi, a good article so thanks for taking the time to write it.

If you read back through the manifesto & the principles, I don’t think you’ll find it prescribes planning only a sprint in advance.

I also think if you read through Martin Eriksson’s article again, he doesn’t describe the manifesto as dogmatic.

I agree with your sentiments on big A Agile, but the manifesto isn’t part of that, for me.

Everything can be used poorly. Having worked in multiple organisations over the past 5 years I can confidently say that there is a move towards Agile development, but not Agile businesses – that’s what Lean(TM) is all about, taking that do little steps to achieve the big build. It’s also redundant once you’re up and running and collecting data in the right way – and that is where almost every start up goes wrong. As soon as there is demand principles go out the window to chase the cash because of course you would, that’s what you’ve been chasing – money. money money money money.

The worst people are the ones selling the development of these skills by raising to the ground whatever is in place now and trying to force a workflow into a business where it just wont work. Companies are people, people need to find their own way of working together, some like things to be high refined and planned, others like to chuck stuff together and just see if it sinks. The winning formula is finding people with the same mentality.

I agree that there are some puritans in business world. They are taking part in every single convent and ignore what is old. However I’m pretty sure, that there are many good solutions among inventions as for example Kanban Tool

I think some amount of Dogma is actually necessary — even in that quote by Bruce Lee, Bruce acknowledges a certain level of dogma:

“Unless a human being has three arms and four legs, there can be no
different form of fighting. But, basically, we only have two hands and
two feet … you just say, ‘here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely?’ ”

So he’s saying — the Dogma is that everyone is human, and have two arms and two feet, and they try to express themselves totally and completely. I’d add that the other level of Dogma here is that he is talking about Martial Arts, and not Creative Dance!

But, anyway, my point is that in order to have a conversation *at all*, we must settle on *some* agreed level of “Dogma”.

Now, in the context of this discussion, the question really is: “How much ‘Agile Dogma’ is enough?”

For some, just agreeing that they will use the Agile Manifesto is enough Dogma. Others need more than just the Manifesto — the add Scrum to their accepted Dogma, or XP, or Kanban. They are not *wrong* to do so — they are just extending their level of accepted “Agile Dogma” to whatever they need.

It’s all very well to say that a ‘Bruce Lee’ just needs the Agile Manifesto, but not everyone is Bruce Lee. We would do well to remember Shu-Ha-Ri, or the four stages of the Conscious Competence model of learning — those setting out on their journey to being the next Agile Bruce Lee need to start with much more of a framework.

The same with the Jazz analogy — sure, give Louis Armstrong, Miles Davies and Dizzie Gillespe a set of instruments, tell them to jam, and you will probably get something really amazing. But do the same with a class of 4-year-olds, and you will get something else entirely. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to become a great Jazz musician, and before you can jam freely, you tend to learn to play the musical instrument in some fashion, schooled or self-taught.

So here’s my advice: start with the Agile Manifesto and settle on a set of Dogma that you will use, then *stick to it* for at least a little while. Use Inspect and Adapt to refine this set, but don’t just automatically assume that “the only good Dogma is a dead Dogma.”

And make sure your agreed set is not a “hollow egg” — start from the basics and work out. Start with the Agile Manifesto, and add what your team needs, not the other way around. That’s how you avoid getting trapped in “going through the motions” of your ceremonies and “holy texts” without getting any benefit.

Oh, and one last thing: beware of people using “Inspect and Adapt” to kill the system from the inside!

“Oh, we Inspected our use of Agile, Scrum, XP, and Kanban, and have decided that we will Adapt by throwing out all the good bits, and keeping the worthless husks like Standups. Oh, and no more Retrospectives — they just waste time since we’re not going to change anything from now on. That is all, carry on.”

Avoid the “hollowed-out egg”, and you’ll be fine with whatever level of “Agile Dogma” you decide you need!

I understand this argument and agree with the premise, but can someone give me an example of dogmatic Agile/Lean. In my career, I’ve been hearing this as an excuse to not do things properly (Scrum-but etc.). Can anyone give me an example of when they’ve experienced ‘dogmatic Agile’ when ‘little a agile’ was better.

I think Bruce Lee put it best.

“You see, actually, I do not teach, you know, Karate, because I do not believe in styles anymore. I mean I do not believe that there is such thing as, like, a Chinese way of fighting or a Japanese way of fighting…or whatever way of fighting, because unless a human being has three arms and four legs, there can be no different form of fighting. But, basically, we only have two hands and two feet. So styles tend to, not only separate man because they have their own doctrines and the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change! But, if you do not have styles, if you just say, “here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely?” …now that way, you won’t create a style because style is a crystallization. That way is a process of continuing growth.”

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.

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

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! 🙂

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!


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…

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!  

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. 

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. 

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!

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.

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