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2022.05.28

Agility Training

Software development teams invented agile as an immune response to destroying the world and — adding insult to injury — being prevented from doing so efficiently by middle management.

Agile™ is a reaction against bad management practices. It’s an attempt to bound the actions of managers into a structure that allows for a team to just get on with the business of value production. In all its forms, agile is an attempt to force an organizations leadership to communicate and agree on what it wants to have done, then create space for teams to do that. Often, the kinds of work that must happen to achieve complex goals in complex contexts don’t read as work to an organizations management.

Agile™ and its methodological successors like Scrum™ and Kanban™ present themselves as simply “ways of working”. Any hint of a value or moral stance being proscribed is quickly backed away from, with the excuse that “these are just tools, what you do with them is up to you”. I see that as an abdication of responsibility. Im uncomfortable with the idea of value-neutral structures because I agree with the process and effective way of working being proposed. The ways of working are good, but the tension and failures are around defining value. And therefor a “framework” that doesn’t have anything to say about how to define or agree on or think about value is actively working to benefit and defend the current status-quo; a position that is inherently championing a set of values.

Pretending that your framework is “not a process” and inherently value neutral is naive at best and intentionally blinding and worst. Frameworks are structures and structures define possibility spaces and having predefined possibility spaces precludes agency. Structures have outcomes that are easy within that structure and outcomes that are hard within that structure. In order to pursue “agile” methodologies, a team needs sovereignty to define and pursue outcomes. Tensions occur when a team feels it doesn’t have sovereignty and when brass feels that a teams determined outcome is not useful to the purpose of the organization. More than a disagreement about how to create value, this is a disagreement on what values to manifest in the world.

I think the core idea is “who gives a shit?” Not in any negative way, but fundamentally “who cares about what and why”. Bret Deveraux has a very interesting essay about making bread in the pre-modern period that takes centers how the goals of pre-modern farmers differ from ours today within our capitalist society. Specifically, where today we think about valuing efficiency in production, pre-modern people valued risk reduction. Because the consequences of failure were so high (ie: you and your entire family starve to death) they tended to act in ways that traded efficiency for consistency. As our society returns to intense inequality and precarity for most people, I think we need to acknowledge that as workers we do this too. As a worker, I value consistency (in order to have health care, pay my mortgage, try and keep my family off the rocks of American life) over efficiency, especially when I don’t share in the benefit of that efficiency. I take home my salary, and I value and want to encourage ways of working that support my long term stability. Brass in an organization value and prioritize efficiency for the people who report to them – since they are acutely aware of how much my salary costs the organization and they want to know they are getting their moneys worth from that exchange – but value consistency in their own jobs for the same reason I do. Cue the classic struggle that makes getting anything important done difficult – we’re all trying to escape but there’s no way out. We end up understand the presence of our peers as costs to an organization that need to be recouped as an ROI.

I feel that Agile™ is, at the end of the day, a reactionary response to this tension – and it attempts to solve it by giving up on negotiating that ambiguity. Instead, it’s created a system that says “I don’t care what it is you want me to do, just tell me what you want, leave me alone for two weeks and I’ll do it”.

Twenty years into the formalization of this process I think we can see the consequences of this line of thinking upon society.