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The anti-agility of dogma (or why Agile is a Science and not a Faith)

The English Oxford Dictionary defines Dogma as...

A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true : 'the dogmas of faith'

To apply this to the agile world we only have to look at the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto. These principles are guidelines for good practice. If Agile, in it's purest form, was a faith then these principles would be akin to Christianity's ten commandments.

The principles are based on experience and growth from many different business types using many different techniques over an extensive period of time. In this Agile is less like a faith and more like a science. It is in the latter that true agility can be found, not in the former. The principles are not based on 'we believe that...' but they are based on 'we have discovered that...'.

Good Dogma

The principles and values are the heart of the change towards agile working. Besides themselves they inherently encourage and actively promote pragmatic behaviour. This is most clearly expressed in 'At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.' (or 'Inspect & Adapt' for short). The dogma of the agile principles is, therefore, rather limited and hugely outweighed by it's pragmatic outlook.

The Rise of the Dogmatic Agilists

In recent years, the agile community has begun to split. While, principles aside, the community was largely very open-minded with many different frameworks and tools and ideas being shared around all over, the proliferation of a combination of bad training and people coming from traditional waterfall mindsets without understanding the core principles and value of agile has led to a growth in dogmatic thinking.

The English Oxford Dictionary defined Dogmatic as...

Inclined to lay down principles as undeniably true

To highlight the split here is a breakdown of different types of agilists on either side...

Characteristics of a Dogmatic Agilist

  • Probably favours a single framework
  • Understands more about their framework than the values and principles
  • May not have understanding of the values and principles at all
  • Views Agile as a process rather than a philosophy
  • Will compromise the principles as long as the framework holds

Characteristics of a Pragmatic Agilist

  • Has experience of, or is at least open to, multiple frameworks
  • Understands what the values and principles mean
  • Will actively adapt their existing framework to test and implement new ideas from elsewhere
  • Views Agile as a philosophy rather than a process

This split is more than just individual, this is reflected within the nature of different frameworks and organisations within the community. For example, I find that The Scrum Alliance and the LESS framework are both on the Pragmatic side of the equation and for me feel more truly agile, while and the SAFe framework feel more Dogmatic.

You can also look at individual implementations. Spotify, one of the Agile implementation poster children, if you will, has clearly developed it's own way of using Agile from many different sources. Spotify are as pragmatic as they come.

The Importance of the Pragmatic Viewpoint

The pragmatic viewpoint which allows for different ideas to come together, to mix and become better for it is crucial to the ongoing life of the agile movement. One of Agile's greatest strengths is in it's ability to challenge; not just organisations but also itself. Without the pragmatists then the agile movement will wither and die.

"Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything" - George Bernard Shaw

How do we make sure this happens?

The heart of this is with the Agile Coaches and the Trainers out there. The best trainers will teach the importance of the philosophical elements to Agile rather than just teaching a specific framework. The best coaches will look for ways to re-orientate their clients to give their implementation the best chance of success. This leads to more open-minded agilists.