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What’s Your Agile Value?

Agilists can miss the point

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Column The Agile Manifesto was put together in 2001 by a group of agilists, as they later became known, on top of a mountain in Utah. I sometimes wonder if the high altitude had something to do with the outcome. At the resultant website, the following four “agile values” are emblazoned across the front page, in letters of fire 80ft tall:

Individuals and interactions OVER processes and tools

Working software OVER comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration OVER contract negotiation

Responding to change OVER following a plan

(Okay okay, I’ve messed with the type face to make a point. Kept me amused at 2AM, anyhow)…

“That is,” the website cheerily explains, “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.” It’s great to know that such a mind-bending corruption of software development values can be tossed off so casually, without further explanation. It's beguiling stuff; the reader is left hanging, seduced, desperate to know why the values on the left should be more important than the ones on the right.

For a project or an organization to be considered agile, it must (as Scott Ambler tells us in Refactoring Databases: Evolutionary Database Design) hold these four values to heart. For example (also from Ambler’s book), regarding “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”:

“The most important factors that you need to consider are the people and how they work together; if you do not get that right, the best tools and processes will not be of any use.”

(Of course, before the list of agile values was produced, we never valued individuals or our interactions with them; we never cared about our customers; and “working software” was just the stuff of far-fetched, utopian science fiction).

Taken at face value, the four agile values suggest that processes and tools are second-class citizens – that as long as you have high-quality people working on your project, the order in which they do things doesn’t matter quite as much. For example (being tongue-in-cheek here), it wouldn’t matter as much if the team were to launch straight into coding without first eliciting some requirements from the customer. (This would, of course, be a recipe for disaster, quality staff or not).

In Agile Development with ICONIX Process (which I co-authored with Doug Rosenberg and Mark Collins-Cope), we proposed an alternative wording for the Agile Manifesto:

To get individuals interacting effectively, you need flexible processes and tools.

To communicate unambiguously, you need minimal but sufficient documentation.

To gain customer collaboration, you need to negotiate a contract first.

To know when to change and to recognize that your project is changing, you need a plan.

It doesn’t have quite the satisfying symmetry that the original list has; and it also goes beyond a simple refactoring of the four values, as it changes the meaning – placing a different emphasis on and creating a caveat for each value. Plus of course, they’re no longer really values, they’re statements about values. Note also that the alternative list doesn’t mention working software; it just seemed too damn obvious for such a high-level list. Of course we want working software! However, I feel that the alternative list goes much further towards “hitting the nub” of agile development values.

For example, looking at the first item: While it is important to use quality staff in your project, the need for a process remains paramount. What does need to be avoided is the canonization of a particular process as being “THE way we shall all adhere to”. The process needs to be flexible; if the process isn’t optimal, then the people need to be able to fix it. To put it another way: There’s not much point having a set of “best practices” if your programmers can’t program; but equally, there’s not much point having quality staff if there’s no leadership and no-one knows what they’re meant to be doing. In this sense, a flexible process and set of tools is easily as important a factor as the staff who monitor and tailor the process. (We explore all four “refactored agile values” in the book).

The upshot is that it should be possible to be people-focussed and to define flexible working practices, without implying that anyone who “isn’t agile” isn’t also customer-focused (etc), and without demoting important concepts – processes, tools, documentation, contract negotiation, and following a plan – into second-class citizens. ®

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