Agile Success Requires More than Just Standing Up

The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece on the Agile practice of daily stand-up (or daily Scrum) meetings and specifically the fact that Agile encourages standing up during stand-up meetings. While I’m impressed and amused that the author managed to fill several paragraphs discussing standing up in stand-up meetings, the fact that the Wall Street Journal chose to publish this article tells me that Agile has officially gone mainstream.

The reader comments following the article are also quite unintentionally humorous. Many readers, obviously unfamiliar with Agile, trashed all over the idea of making people stand up for 15 minutes a day, while several earnest Agilists responded with attempts to show them the light. Some negative commentators were utterly infuriated that Agilists are strict about being on time to meetings! Seriously, how in the heck does one get so riled up over the notion of asking people to be on time out of respect for everyone else’s time and their shared objectives?

As Agile becomes more commonplace, those who have been involved in promoting healthy Agile practices for years likely realize that there is still a significant road ahead in ensuring organizations adopt the right practices for the right reasons. Agilists work hard to promote the concept that Agile is about constantly delivering business value and inserting many feedback loops into the development process to discover and reassess what business value truly is. The desired outcome is the delivery of timely, high-quality products which meet or exceed the objectives laid out by our customers. That concept sounds nice and businesslike, but certainly not as attention-grabbing as the Wall Street Journal article. A fluff piece describing people standing up during meetings, throwing medicine balls around, and squeaking rubber rats at each other will get more page views. And raise more hackles.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a former CTO of a global technology company everyone has heard of and who currently works with a venture capital firm. I asked him what he thought about Agile and he was quick to express his frustrations with the practice. His main criticism was that there no longer exists such a thing as a schedule. How could he work with teams that refuse to commit to delivery dates? Of course, I’ve heard this complaint before and had to resist the desire to bang my head against the wall. Unfortunately, this executive is far from alone in having gotten the wrong impression of Agile. All too often, teams and entire organizations set out to practice Agile, but end up flailing because they take shortcuts, perform half-measures, and generally waste a lot of time and effort while trying to “customize” their own versions of Agile.

For the record, Agile demands great discipline. It also demands conversation and difficult decisions and there is such a thing as a schedule. We build the highest-value items first, and when a delivery date looms and the backlog is not completed, we conduct (hopefully) reasonable conversations about what we can do to meet the objectives in the backlog. In the meantime, our customer is happy because throughout the project the focus is delivering high-value, high-quality, finished (i.e., tested) product which is certain to be released in the customer’s time frame. Does it have everything the customer wanted? Probably not. Does the customer need everything they wanted? Again, probably not, but the top-priority objectives are completed and due focus can then turned to the lower part of the backlog where the “nice to haves” live.

As Agile gains traction, it is important to remember that for every great Agilist out there doing great work, there are far too many people who have good intentions but don’t know what they’re doing, and they are creating a public relations mess and leaving behind them a wake of failed Agile transformations. It’s a frustrating shame that their bad practices lead to misconceptions about Agile. As for the Wall Street Journal article, perhaps there is no such thing as bad publicity. Of course, rather than a fluff piece focused on the not at all revolutionary concept of standing up in meetings, I would love to see something in the Wall Street Journal about how Agile helps deliver high quality business outcomes while saving organizations money. But until then, we can appreciate that the word is getting out, and do our best to correct the malpractices and misinformation.

Laura Howley

Laura Howley is a Certified ScrumMaster with the Scrum Alliance and has been actively practicing Scrum for over four years. At CollabNet, she works with a diverse range of clients from large semi-conductors to small web start-ups, helping them move from traditional workflows to more agile practices. She comes from a project management background at web startups and both project management and sales at the fortune 100 bank, JPMorganChase. She was introduced to Scrum at Danube, which was acquired by CollabNet. Danube incorporated the principles and practices of Scrum into all elements of its operations. Learning from the practices that were so successful at Danube, Laura now helps other organizations transform their workplaces into fully agile operations.

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