By the Book Agile is no Longer Agile

A friend of mine told me about an organisation in trouble: They were too firmly attached to their processes to improve when needed. The strict process that was followed? Agile (Scrum to be specific).

I’m sorry if I just caused some of you to swallow your coffee down the wrong pipe, but it’s true: Using an agile process the wrong way can give exactly the same problems as the agile movement try to extinguish.

The reason that this occurs is that most articles teaching agile practices (including my own) are very prescriptive. Do this! Don’t do that!

For beginners that’s great and that’s what they need, but for teams that have some experience it is time to bend the rules when needed. The best way to describe this that I’ve found is Shu Ha Ri. The term originates from Aikido, but is frequently used within the agile community to describe the different phases of agile adaption.

Shu – Beginner

Shu is the beginner level. For someone starting out on the agile journey without experience, the first goal must be to get the agile process running. To do that, a variety of practices are required. For scrum (my favourite agile methodology) this means running sprints through sprint planning, daily standups, review and retrospective with a backlog to keep track of the requirements. It means to appoint a product owner a scrum master and a development team.

In the scrum projects I have run that have been successful, all these parts have been present. When talking to other people that just can’t really get scrum working a deeper discussion often reveals that they are only following half of the practices. When learning a method the first time, I think that it’s important to go all in, to follow the method by the book to proper understand it.

In scrum, each of the events, artifacts and rules makes sense on their own, but the true power of them is only realised when they are combined. For a beginner, it is important to go deep enough into the method to experience how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s the Shu (beginners) level. That’s where many teams get stuck and that’s the level that most of the material available on scrum and other agile methods focuses on. Unfortunately, it’s much less obvious how to move on to the next – Ha – level.

Ha – Expert

The shu level focuses on following the prescriptive rules, just to get started. On the ha level it’s time for a deeper understanding of the rules. It is now time to look critically at the process and see if all of the parts make sense. Maybe the daily standups are not considered efficient, as the team has come to a state where they are talking continuously during the day. Then ditch the standups. They are not needed. Or maybe they are – the only way to know is to try. Ditch them for a sprint and follow up the effects in the sprint retrospective.

The rule book is not meant to be followed. It is meant to be broken, but only once you’ve learned the value of each rule. The ha phase is also the right one to start experimenting with alternative approaches. If you’re running scrum – try some Kanban or XP for a change.

When coaching a team it is a very important balance to find the point where the team transitions from shu to ha. For a team being at the shu level, it is a warning sign if they are breaking the rules. For a team at the ha level it is a warning sign if they are not breaking any of the rules.

When a team says that they are breaking the rules, a bit further discussion often makes it very clear if they are a struggling shu, or experienced ha. Just listen to how they describe it. If they are abandoning something because it was hard, took too much time or people ignored it (such as not showing up on a standup) they are shu. They need help to enforce the rules. If they are abandoning something because they’ve found a better alternative, or because they found the practice redundant (they do the three Qs on the standup, but everyone already knew what everyone else would say) they are ha and should be encouraged to experiment and find their own way.

Ri – Master

I’ve yet to experience the pleasure of working with a ha team making the leap to mastery. I can only imagine what it would be like, but I suppose it would involve deep discussions and understanding of the process. The team would continuously inspect and adapt until their process is their own and no longer follows any rule book. By not only breaking the rules, but rather leaving them behind, going beyond the limitations of the rules they would achieve mastery.

Stepping up from Shu

Without knowing the details of the organisation my friend told me about, my guess is that they struggle with making the leap from shu to ha. Sticking to the rules is comfortable – human beings in general dislike change. It might be that they just need some rest after a stressful period of agile adoption. It might be that they have stopped improving and grown comfortable.

In any case I’d put my bet on one practice that they are not following. The one practice that is the most important once the basic rules of the shu level are followed: The retrospectives. They are the key to moving on. They are the places for critical discussion on the own process and finding out how to take the next step on the road to mastery.

  • mp911de on 2013-09-19

    The most sad point on that is, this is very true and only the least can get beyond the “agile by book” point.

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Software Development is a Job – Coding is a Passion

I'm Anders Abel, an independent systems architect and developer in Stockholm, Sweden.

profile for Anders Abel at Stack Overflow, Q&A for professional and enthusiast programmers

Code for most posts is available on my GitHub account.

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