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What is a Pragmatic Agilist?

What is a Pragmatic Agilist?

PRAGMATIC: Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations: "a pragmatic approach to politics"

AGILE: Relating to or denoting a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans: Contrasted with waterfall: "agile methods replace high-level design with frequent redesign"

(quotes above courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries - © Oxford University Press)

AGILIST: A proponent of, or someone who actively practices, Agile (see above) (not a dictionary word).

Defining the Pragmatic Agilist

If we look at the quotes above there will be some things there that resonate and some things that don't (I'm not sure I agree with the Oxford Dictionary definition of 'agile' either, but it's not a bad stab for a layman). Let's try merging these definitions and see what we get...

PRAGMATIC AGILIST: A proponent of Agile who deals with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.

Looking at that definition you would naturally include any experienced coach or scrum master in the community today. This is a massive oversimplification, however.

The Stigmatism of Pragmatism

'Pragmatic' has built up a bad name for itself in the agile community over the past 15 years or so and for no good reason. It has done so due, as much, to people not understanding the meaning of pragmatism as to people not understanding the meaning of agile. It is important to recognise that pragmatism and agility are naturally complimentary.

Agile as Religion

For many in the community the belief in the superiority of agile as a way of working can take on almost religious zeal. This does agile an immense disservice while paying it a compliment. The difficulty with this level of faith is that it can easily become blind. A Pragmatic Agilist realises that belief and faith are one thing but that understanding and proof are necessary in the real world to effect lasting change.

From Belief System to Sect

If Agile is a wide reaching belief system it is a root belief system. Many of the monotheistic religions of Earth today have root belief systems. The most obvious example from the history of my own country is Judaism, Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism) which could be viewed as a timeline of development with different splinter faiths forming through history. People of these different splinter faiths have very strongly held beliefs that their world views are correct.

But it was a bit late...

Agile, although being akin to a root belief system in a religious context, wasn't where it all began. To the contrary, the agile manifesto values & principles were formed by a gathering of individuals who had already spent quite some time either developing or working with frameworks which we now consider to be 'agile frameworks'. This makes Agile different in a fundamental way from religions: At one point in time, the key experts in many different approaches all got together to hammer out the fundamental elements and good practices that underpinned what they were trying to achieve. That's pretty amazing! Imagine all of the heads of the worlds religions getting together to work out key values and principles to share between them.

The Splintering

If the turn of the millennium was the gathering point then the time since has been more akin to the splintering model that we see from core belief systems with the key values and principles applied but different people favouring different frameworks. This is great - as long as different frameworks value each other and, unfortunately, that doesn't tend to be the case. Over time the tribal elements of human nature tend to pull people into one group or another, actively blocking innovations from other groups.

The value of The Pragmatic Agilist

The Pragmatic Agilist, whether associated with a given framework or not, goes against tribal tendencies to look beyond the tools prescribed by their own framework to find solutions that will best suit the needs of a given client and never loses sight of the fundamental values and principles that drives them to do what they do. In so doing they act as a bridge between splintered directions of framework development.

How does a Pragmatic Agilist work?

As a Pragmatic Agilist is grounded in the real world, I would expect a Pragmatic Agilist to spend time learning how a target organisation is working and gathering measurements before beginning to recommend change. I would expect a Pragmatic Agilist looking at significant change to focus on elements that return value, to view the organisation itself as a product that can be improved, in order to minimise resistance to change. I would expect a Pragmatic Agilist to study the business culture to determine how (and indeed if) Agile can best be implemented.

What does a Pragmatic Agilist NOT do?

A Pragmatic Agilist values the values and principles of the manifesto above all else. While a Pragmatic Agilist will look at change from the point of the existing state and delivering value they will also not compromise in situations where these principles and values would be violated. Agile without any kind of team autonomy is, for example, a non-starter. You can read more about this in my article about pragmatism vs compromise.