What makes agile development and project management successful? While there are many factors in agile’s success, four key ones are: a bias for action, a focus on customer value, the appeal to doers, and being principles based.
One of the most famous, or infamous, management books ever written was In Search of Excellence : Lessons from Americas Best Run Companies, by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman. This book, published in 1982, has been criticized in some circles because some of their designated “Best Run Companies” fell on hard times after the book’s publication. However, there are some ideas about what makes successful companies that can be compared with agile success factors.
“Do it, fix it, try it.” “The most important and visible outcropping of the action bias in excellent companies is their willingness to try things our, to experiment.” “They [most big institutions] seem to prefer analysis and debate to trying something out, and they are paralyzed by fear of failure, however small.” These are three quotes from In Search of Excellence. What strikes me about these quotes is their similarity to quotes someone in the agile community would make and that these were three quotes that were underlined in my 1982 copy of the book. While this was 10 years before I really began my agile transformation, these words must have stuck with me.
Agile teams are biased for action. They deliver in short iterations and focus on delivering value to the customer. They do documentation, plans, requirements, designs—but only enough to support quick action. They focus on experimentation (let’s do something), assessment (what did we learn), and adaptation from that learning.
A second trait of excellence companies was getting “close to the customer.” “In observing the excellent companies, and specifically the way they interact with customers, what we found most striking was the consistent presence of obsession. This characteristically occurred as a seemingly unjustified overcommitment to some form of quality, reliability, or service,” say Peters and Waterman.
When I look at this close to the customer focus I think of two traits of agile development: close, frequent (daily) collaboration between the development team and the customer team, and ‘obsession’ with testing. Test-driven development, Storytesting, and automated testing are all part of the agile emphasis on quality and the belief that this emphasis benefits not only the present (high-quality working software), but also the future (delivering future value).
A third trait of excellent companies was “productivity through people.” Peters and Waterman found that excellent companies focused on people first, process a distant second. This focused reversed in the 1990s to a focus of process over people during the re-engineering craze. The agile movement has reversed the trend again, back to people over process. The authors, discussing ex-chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt’s management philosophy, said he kept it simple—he believed that “people respond well to being treated as grownups.” Later in the chapter they remark, “There was hardly a more pervasive theme in the excellent companies that ‘respect for the individual’.
I think there are two reasons individuals at the developer, tester, analyst level support the agile movement, First, the agile movement is biased towards these doers—it gives them tools and practices that help them do their job simply and effectively without a lot of bureaucracy. Second, agile organizations treat people as grownups.