Is Modern Agile the New Coke?

Joshua Kerievsky wrote an intriguing article entitled Modern Agile which is an attempt at an upgrade to what he sees as stale Agile practices.  I was intrigued by his article and am writing this response with my perspectives…

First, I would like to say that I like the overall thinking and approach in Modern Agile. It draws upon four keys which are hard to disagree with – Focusing on the customer, inspecting and adapting quickly, delivering value frequently, and fostering a healthy environment. I appreciate opportunities to view Agile from new perspectives and I think the Venn diagram visualization and overall simplicity of the framework make it easy to understand and engage.

Second, I like the primary focus on the customer. Often organizations forget that Agile is a means to an end, not the end itself. Chartering work (as a verb) is an excellent idea in that it is goal-oriented and reflective. And further, by incorporating Lean Startup and Lean UX, chartering enables organizations to quickly identify, validate, and act upon key value opportunities.

Third, I like the inclusion of the healthy environment – making safety a prerequisite. Core Agile frameworks fail to address this or only address it indirectly. Modern Agile has made Theory Y leadership a fundamental leg (oval) in its framework. Creating a safe environment, built upon trust and respect, provide opportunities for teams to explore, succeed and fail without the fear of retribution. 

So what is Modern Agile? I see Modern Agile as an Agile mash-up. It has taken healthy and effective principles/practices and pulled them together in a nice framework. Looking at just one oval – Make Users Awesome – we see three effectively re-used patterns in Lean Canvas (Charter Your Work), Lean Startup and Lean UX. One might classify Modern Agile similar to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) in that regard which is a hybrid of XP Quality Practices, Program and Team Scrum Framework, and Kanban Portfolio Management. SAFe and Modern Agile both leverage a set of pre-existing Lean and Agile principles and practices and pull then together into a new mash-up. I am not suggesting Modern Agile is the same as SAFe, just that they share similar building blocks. While SAFe is much more comprehensive and prescriptive, Modern Agile is much simpler and higher-level. 

Where does Modern Agile fit? Organizations come in all shapes and sizes. Some organizations are more prescriptive and structured, others more flexible and organic. Some organizations are very collaborative and family-oriented, while others are competitive and fast-paced. I believe the lightness of Modern Agile will appeal to the more organic, collaborative and flexible organizations – especially to those that are already Agile through Scrum and experimenting with various Lean and Kanban approaches. However, I don’t believe that the more structured and prescriptive organizations will find a home in this relatively light and loose framework because of its lack of specificity. One of the reasons SAFe is having such success in this dimension is because of their specificity, whether that is right or wrong.

What is missing from Modern Agile? The success of Scrum stems from its ability to focus cross-functional teams collaboratively on complex problems. Modern Agile reminds me of Kanban from a few years ago. Initially, I imagined Kanban taking over Scrum as a preferred approach. But after focusing deeply in it as a student and teacher through reading David Anderson’s Kanban book, taking his Master Kanban Workshop, and implementing it with clients, I began to see its limitations. Kanban requires cadence to be effective. This point was stressed over and over in the book and the workshop, and Kanban’s challenge is that there is no explicit cadence and requires strong leadership to drive it. And in a catch-22 like conundrum, Kanban has no explicit leadership role to drive the cadence. The freedom from an explicit cadence and team leadership structure, which appears so appealing at the outset, becomes its downfall as teams fail to iterate on the process, the product, and team itself.

Modern Agile has an inferred team and cadence. Form Product Communities, Evolve Solutions, Collaborate and Integrate Frequently, and Conduct Blameless Retrospectives are four of the building blocks of Modern Agile. And while they hint at team and cadence, they fail to make them explicit. This lack of specificity will appeal to many, but will likely falter in execution – especially over the long run.

New Agile approaches like this remind me of when New Coke was introduced to the market. Pepsi was winning all of the taste test challenges. Coke leadership assumed this meant that Pepsi was superior and it needed a sweeter product to win the taste test. However, after releasing New Coke as a sweeter version, they realized that people preferred Coke Classic over the long run – the less sweet product was actually preferred beyond the initial taste test.

Scrum is like Coke Classic, it may be harder in the short-term with its explicit team and sprint cycle focus exposing organizational issues, but it is successful over the long run – in that the explicit teams and cadence structure drive it to sustain over time. Scrum’s prescription in these areas, while seen as a challenge to some, force purposeful conversation, reflection and learning, which is why Scrum is so hard, and why Scrum works so well.

My choice is stays with Scrum. Obviously, my bias is Scrum. I am a Certified Scrum Coach (CSC), Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) and I was recently elected to the Scrum Alliance Board of Directors. I recognize this bias and its impact on my thinking. However, I have been in the development process space for over 25 years (before Scrum was introduced) and have seen many processes, tools and frameworks come and go – remember the promise of 4GL? I do and spent 3 years of my career designing a system with the hope of push to code technology. I also spent 7 years with Rational in developing the Rational Unified Process (RUP) and the Rational Suite of Tools to support it. I don’t regret those times as they have shaped me and have enabled me to see more effective patterns today.

I believe there is a space for Modern Agile, as there is for Kanban, SAFe and other frameworks. I appreciate it as a thinking tool and a collection of effective Agile patterns. I also appreciate the work of Joshua Kerievsky as it takes tremendous foresight and courage to introduce a new way of thinking about Agile. I will likely use Modern Agile at times to shape my own thinking and in aiding my clients in their thinking.

However, when it comes to implementation, I will continue with Scrum as my principle tool. As I work with clients on the varying edges of culture from over-controlling to over-creative, from over-democratic to over-competitive, I find Scrum to be the perfect balance to break down the structures in the over-structured and to add just enough structure in the under-structured. Scrum speeds up the overly democratic and focuses in on the overly competitive. Scrum is simple, but it is not easy. And that combination makes it accessible to all and challenging to all – which drives improvement in all.

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