Niche Speciation and Maladaptive Behavior in Agile Populations

December 29, 2010 Luke Walter

In the industry scramble to become more agile, a lot of practices have been dragged under the umbrella of the term – some appropriately, some perhaps less so. With such a loose outline, this isn’t surprising. In addition to posting the original Agile Manifesto and the Twelve Principles of Agile, the Agile Alliance website summarizes agile as:

“…close collaboration between the programmer team and business experts; face-to-face communication (as more efficient than written documentation); frequent delivery of new deployable business value; tight, self-organizing teams; and ways to craft the code and the team such that the inevitable requirements churn was not a crisis.”

Importantly, this is not a definition, nor a prescription. There are practices you can adopt that are in keeping with these sentiments, but the manifesto and the principles have little to say about HOW to be agile. In the market, the combination of this ambiguity with popularity has resulted in a population explosion under the aegis of agile, with many sub-varieties and flavors of practice vying for survival in a crowded marketplace of ideas. There are many reasons for this, not least of which are two that I like to think of in terms of evolutionary biology: niche speciation and maladaptive behavior.

The ‘niche speciation’ in agile arises from the incentive for consultants marketing instruction or coaching to specialize in novel variants or branded techniques in order to differentiate from the dominant players, methodologies, and practices. Like biological niche speciation, this in itself may not be harmful and may lead to viable and useful new agile practices. But the incentive to be different and novel for their own sakes leads some variants into dubious claims or to take advantage of an agile novice’s naïveté. An argument for a branded alternative to user stories, for example – based on the claim that user stories are ‘not enough’ to define a piece of functionality – may appeal to those struggling with the fundamentals of writing and estimating user stories, but is disproven by the tens of thousands who have mastered the technique.

The ‘maladaptive behavior’ in agile originates from an organization’s attempts to bend or modify a practice to fit expectation or avoid removing organizational impediments. The so-called “Sprint 0”, for instance, is simply an analysis and design phase in Scrum-like clothing. The intention is obvious in using the term “Sprint”, but in reality only repeats the phased approach and predictive structure of waterfall development. Perhaps the strongest reason these ‘hybrid’ behaviors are maladaptive is that they lend the appearance of agility while preventing the team or organization from becoming truly agile. Often these agile-in-name-only behaviors are quoted in an organization’s abandonment of their efforts at agile transformation, revealing their maladaptive nature.

When considering adoption of either novel variants or hybridized practices – or indeed any practice – it’s important to keep in mind the spirit behind the letter of whatever methodology’s ‘law’ you’re subscribing to. One of the most common complaints about Scrum – that it’s ‘not complete’ because it doesn’t outline everything an organization must do to develop product – is in fact by design. Scrum is non-prescriptive and purposefully silent on details not related to agility, because in practice, you’re supposed to keep the values in mind and square your particulars against them. The lesson is to avoid fixation on methodology, because it’s the spirit and values of agility that are important.

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