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Refine the Message Platform

There are a lot of things that I like about the agile movement, many of the things I have been doing myself or recommending to clients for years. Short iterations, plenty of interaction, early value and strong leverage of change. A critical new improvement is that it is now OK to talk about how you are going to approach a problem, to talk about process without thinking that the whole thing is a waste of time and money: a nasty stigma has been removed. One thing that is still holding us back, though, is the argument by many agilistas that you have to jump on the bandwagon or you won't be successful.

Some suggest that the agile movement is crossing the chasm, as Geoffrey Moore has modeled for any technology adoption. For all the useful talk about the value of agility, there are a number of prominent proponents of Agile that go so far as to say that you need to adopt these approaches, no question about it, if you want to succeed in software development. While this talk works well with the early adopters and fanboys that have made up the lion's share of people embracing Agile thus far, it will cause serious heartburn with those that are further along the adoption curve.

Think about these assertions a bit. Many would suggest that deep early-stage analysis will never work, that comprehensive project planning is bound to fail. Some would even suggest that if a team is not doing Scrum, they are not worth investing in. Here is what these assertions tell me.

I have been involved in projects where deep early-stage analysis has provided tremendous value (yes, even recently!), I have led comprehensive planning sessions that drove our successful delivery of what was promised (in a large, iterative project, no less), and have seen project success with an extremely wide range of development approaches, many of which are clearly outside the Agile box. Not only do I think there is value in these techniques, I know the value is there based on personal experience (for projects where these techniques are appropriately applied).

What does this say about assertions that these non-agile practices unequivocally don't work? It tells me that the asserters have never been involved in projects where these practices contributed to success. Either their experience has been too limited to afford them time on these successful projects, or their influence has been insufficient on these projects to drive these techniques to be applied successfully. Or, of course, these statements could simply be hyperbole.

Either way, their credibility has taken a serious smack upside the head in my books. While their evangelical cries from the pulpit to join in on the movement may be welcome to some, they are turning many others away in the process. They are getting bums in seats, but are they the right bums?

We need to recognize that we sell people on change. Most credible sales experts strongly advise against demonizing the competition. A truly effective product does not need an evil demon to compare against, it should be able to stand up for itself on its own merits. Indeed, if we need to support our case by slamming the opposition, if we have to take the "if you are not with us, you are against us" approach, the message loses much of its punch for anyone outside that early adopter (known as zealots to some) category.

Like most people, I think the overall software development industry could use some serious improvement. Unlike some, though, I think that what is best depends very much on the project context, and it is never appropriate to propose a solution before this context is known. If the agile movement is truly crossing the chasm (and it is not clear that we are there yet - for the extremely wide range of clients I work with, agile is not yet part of the mainstream conversation), the message needs to be adjusted for an audience that needs more convincing.

We need to stop the screaming from the pulpit and demonizing practices that have been successful when applied appropriately. If we want to successfully cross the chasm with agile approaches, we need to be careful to avoid jumping the shark. We need to refine the agile messaging platform.

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