Tom Gilb Laments the “10 Wasted Years of Agile”

Tom Gilb Laments the “10 Wasted Years of Agile”

[From the Archive: Originally posted at Aug 15, 2010]

I very much share Tom’s summary of “the state of Agile”:


The Agile Manifesto [2] was never a well formulated document, from the point of view of making sure we did the right things right. I have at least, in my principles and values here, tried, in my not too humble opinion, to show a specific alternative – how it might have been. The manifesto has of course been successful in getting a wave of change. And moving to rapid iteration is a ‘good thing’. But rapidly iterating in wrong directions is not progress. The key idea of intelligent iteration towards well- defined stakeholder values, was clearly and extensively spelled out in Principles of Software Engineering Management, which most of the leading agile gurus point to as a source of some of their agile ideas. But as some of them reflect today, they missed at least one simple but essential point – ‘stakeholder value’ needs to be the guiding light for the iterative process – not functions and stories.

Hey, we are still a young discipline. We only wasted about a decade getting this wrong. Software has been seeing failed fads come and go for 50 years. We have so many experienced intelligent people now – maybe we can get it right in the next revolution?

If the IT-project failure rate (total plus partial) goes down from about 90% (Standish) to less than 2%, you will know we got it right, for a change. Do you think we can do it right by my 100th Birthday?
~ @imtomgilb

For Tom’s full argument, see e.g.: “Value-Driven Development Principles and Values – Agility is the Tool, Not the Master” (pdf of Agile Record article) or a related Slideshare Presentation.

Amplifyd from
  • Bob Marshallflowchainsensei “Do you think we can do [software projects] right by my 100th Birthday?” ~ @imtomgilb | Or mine?


– Bob

  1. Bob – The IT project failure rate is a direct result of people ignoring (or plain removing) contingency, usually for political reasons (the Dilbert “pointy haired boss” kind). So a fail is being unable to deliver to a Waterfall-style objectives set at some remove from delivering the projects that were only possible if absolutely nothing went wrong. It goes straight back to Deming’s point about MBO vs MBP – the O’s still have it! If each iteration is an management-forced aspiration rather than based on what is possible (so the chance of “hitting” the story points is even as high as 90%) then you will soon run into trouble (in this example the chance of still being on target after 5 iterations is only around 50%). Of course, in this all-too-common scenario, everybody gets demotivated too and productivity starts to bomb anyway.

    I agree that many people “do agile” rather than “be agile” – they see it as process rather than mind set, and so throw out all sorts of sea anchors around “doing it right”, as in being obsessed with process, rather than (and this is a point made in the quote) “doing the right thing”. As you’ve said yourself, the process-driven, analytical mindset is a much easier place to be than an open Chaordic one, particularly if you learned you craft in a process driven environment, such as an educational institution, and just don’t have the models to do things any other way.

    I see it as a crisis of models, of education, of plain old fear, not principles. It does seem to be getting worse, though. I think we might need a new Manifesto – somewhat less narrow than the craftsmanship movement because it needs to include people who aren’t coders but want to “do the right thing”. In fact, coding is the last thing in this, but it’s the first that everyone looks at because it’s easier to see.

    It’s a great source of frustration and sadness for me that we have all the tools now, we have Deming’s insights, we have agile methods, we have methods for managing uncertainty, blah blah blah – but people still carry on doing the same old stuff assuming the results will be different next time. I think it was Einstein that said that this is a sign of madness.

  2. Hi Francis,

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation. Yes, it’s a frustrating time for people who can see what’s going on. Not that that’s a new phenomenon. Look at Semmelweis for example. Poor bastard.

    You’ve heard of the “Cassandra Syndrome” I suspect? Personally I find some comfort in the idea that “We must have faith the the Universe will unfold as it should”. It’s also why, from a systems thinking perspective, I’m convinced that we have to move the whole of society to a better (more enlightened) place, not just make a few localised fixes. Rock ‘n’ roll also helps.

    Keep sane. And keep banging those rocks together. 🙂

    – Bob

  3. Bob,

    I learned XP before the term Agile Software Development was coined. What I learned was that the Customer, with the Team, created an initial stab at what they thought was needed in the form of Stories. The priority attached to those Stories was a function of business value (determined by the Customer), risk (determined by both the Customer and Team), and technical cost (e.g. if we do this first, it costs $X, if we do it later it will cost $Y).

    It was expected that The Plan was re-evaluated during every Iteration Planning meeting. Were the current Stories still valid? Did they need to be split? Did new ones need to be added? Were their estimates still OK based on what we discovered in previous iterations?

    I did that. It worked. In fact, it worked well.

    The entire goal was to maximize the value delivered, as defined by the stakeholders and curated by the Customer.

    Somewhere in the past 12 years, that message has been lost.

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