On methodology

I love Agile methodologies. There. I said it.

I love Agile.

Recently, Robert C. Martin aka “Uncle Bob” visited my workplace. I didn’t know that I was invited to join the party, or I would have, especially after I was informed that he was the organizer of the little convention that resulted in the Agile Manifesto. Alas, a missed opportunity.

I don’t remember if Paul Tevis (designer of A Penny for My Thoughts) was my original exposure to Agile, but I do know that my trying to understand his comments on Twitter about his Agile outings drove my original research. I found myself attracted to Agile because it was trying to solve actual problems while also providing the basis for a humane workplace by having a more realistic understanding of risk and uncertainty compared to older waterfall methods.

Somewhere along the way, I also discovered Lean, coming out of the Toyota Production System. I learned to love kaizen–a lifestyle of constant improvement–and the idea that our work is to do our work and to improve our work. Even more than this, I loved the underlying emphasis on respect for people–all people–that forms the foundation for Lean. Again, in this developing thinking on the workplace, I see the potential for a humane workplace that values workers while empowering them to provide truly valuable service to customer and to the world at large.

But when I look at the literature, I don’t see is an embracing of the underlying principles of iteration, constant evolutionary improvement, respect for people, honoring the craftsman, or the like. Instead, I see discussions around the implementation of the tools of Agile and Lean. So, being Agile means working in “sprints” –whatever that means–and writing features on note cards instead of on a Gantt chart. Or maybe it means open office workspaces or stand-up meetings or the use of story points and burndown charts. In a similar way, I see Lean reduced to a focus on reducing wastefulness or the implementation of a pull system.

The approach seems to be that you can grab a couple tools off the Agile shelf or pull a couple plays from the Lean playbook and somehow create a magic bullet that will solve all your problems.

Come to think of it, I see a lot of this thinking everywhere. “Just adopt these three easy-to-implement methods,” the ad says, “and it will change your business overnight.”


The transformative power of an Agile or Lean approach lies not in their methods but in their philosophies of work. The tools of Agile and Lean–burndown charts, kanban, sprints, story points, pull systems, 5S, and the like–are the result of their philosophical approaches to work. You can’t dress up the old command-and-control systems with a couple of nifty looking methods and expect to get amazing results. The world doesn’t look like that. People don’t work like that.

No method will magically make it all easier. There is a reason it’s called “work”, after all. And yet, I think that we can learn much from the philosophies that brought us Agile and Lean.

Trust your workers.

Be honest with each other.

Own your work.

Constantly pursue the betterment of yourself and those around you.

Make things of value in ways that help and not harm the world.

Have reasonable expectations.

Do these things, and you will do well.


2 responses to “On methodology

  • James Lansberry

    I don’t think it *necessarily* follows that to embrace any good from agile, lean, etc. one must grab everything. First, they’re not necessarily good to the core (I know at this point you think they are, but bear with me) and may need to have parts rejected for good reasons. Think martial arts and the spiritual roots there…can we glean good martial tactics from them despite it? I think so. But we can’t embrace some of the core.

    I’ll be doing more reading on this, but not everyone adopting part of a process framework is necessarily trying to silver bullet success. They may be actually deliberate in what they’re doing and pulling a positive tool for good reasons. It may *also* be that the tool, without other process/philosophy involvement becomes useless.

    And it goes without saying (but you know me…I’ll say it anyway) that this doesn’t negate the point that some will adopt parts of a successful system as a way of doing the same old thing with different window dressing, and “that trick never works.”

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Oh, I’m not arguing that Agile or Lean adopted completely will save us either. There are people out there who are engaging with Agile in particular, arguing against particular practices or in favor of evolving the methods and techniques in use. (Thus the ongoing dialogue between Scrum and Kanban, for instance.) The video I linked to the other day (Velocity is a bogus number) is actually engaging with the point.

    At the same time, both in the literature and in dialogue with colleagues in other organizations[1], I have seen the behavior I’m talking about, and not just with Agile and Lean. (Ask Rod about Six Sigma sometime…but stand back first!) When an organization’s approach to adopting (say) Agile is to pile everyone in a big room without assigned desks and just adopt terminology like “sprint” without changing anything else–this isn’t a hypothetical, by the way![2]–then the organization is behaving in the way I’m describing.

    What I’m arguing for in this post is an understanding of the “why?” behind your method, whatever it is. (In this, I’m following our friend Simon Sinek.) Different methods have a better fit with different situations, and, as Jim Benson argues in the video I linked above, each group needs to customize its methods to apply the principles of good work to their particular situation. For instance, Agile is a fairly good approach to software development but doesn’t actually make a lot of sense in a manufacturing situation. Many of the underlying principles are still in play, but the application is different.

    Believe it or not, this isn’t an Agile evangelist post. Rather, this is a call for organizational leaders to have an understanding of why certain methods work and seeing how to apply that knowledge in their organization, rather than blindly grabbing a new fad method off the shelf and hoping that it’ll pay off.

    [1]And doesn’t that make me sound all sophisticated.
    [2]If you care, ask me in person, and I’ll tell you more details.

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