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Post-Anything

My undergraduate degree was in history.  As credentials to build a profession on, its a pretty useless major, unless you want to teach history.  But one thing it gave me was a perspective on the flow of time in the human story.  Everybody always thinks that now is the ultimate stage of development.  Modern is wonderful.  Woops, I mean post-modern is better.  Oh, no, I mean post-post-modern is everything we ever needed.  Wherever we are now, if we’re inclined by temperament to be content we have reached the pinnacle.  If we’re inclined to optimism, now is messed up but surely truth and enlightenment are a stage or two down the line.  If we’re skeptics then whatever we did yesterday was definitely wrong, we’re not that much better today, and tomorrow is doubtful.

When we call something “post” something else, generally its a reaction–a rejection of whatever was in the something we are now post.  It is the plight of youth to react to whatever the generation before thought was great.  It is the plight of the young, bright professional to think that the voice of experience has stagnated.

Not really being the voice of youth any more, I have come to understand that my views on how to do things aren’t the pinnacle of perfection any more than the problems built into previous generations of methods were perfect.  The methods of tomorrow aren’t going to be perfect either.  While technology develops, people basically have the human capabilities that they have had for the past several thousand years, and unless we hit a technology singularity (or maybe even then, just faster) or the world ends we are about the same as the people a couple of thousand years from now.  Human nature, human creativity, human relationships, all work about the same over time.  And these are what our lives are made of, regardless of whatever the current hype.

Given that work is done by humans, and humans tend to be about the same as they have always been, why does it seem with each generation that the new methods for getting stuff done are so much better than what has gone before?  Is this just illusion?  Is Agile really better than TQM and the “tired” methodologies that went before?  Is post-Agile an improvement?  Total Quality has a lot of obviously valid points in retrospect.  The Theory of Constraints is mostly just common sense applied to processes.  To a great extent, the heart of Agile (as exposed by the Agile Manifesto) is just a reminder about the human core of all processes.  Here’s a guarantee:  our children will think Agile is nonsense, and whatever is the new fad is incomparably more effective.  Our grandchildren will be post-whatever our children are.  And they’ll be right, but at the same time they will be wrong.

I’m convinced that methodology itself mixed with human nature plus time is the main problem with methodologies.  Agile isn’t any different, as successful methodologies go.  It reminds us of the important stuff at the heart of processes:  people getting things done for people.  It reminds us that it is the people who are important, and that trust matters.  This is good stuff.  Important stuff.  Then, being creatures of habit, we formalize the rules of our methodology.  We try to make it reproducable.  We write books so that other people can do it too.  We tell them with confidence that if they do it like we did it, they will succeed.  If they don’t succeed that means they didn’t follow the method.  Bull.

What is successful about Agile isn’t the methodology.  Its the philosophy that processes are about people doing things for people.  Its the reminder that we should aim for the goal.  When the philosophy succumbs to the habits, the truth underlying its success dies.  The method becomes king rather than what made it successful in the first place.

Here is what makes Agile successful:

  • People matter more than tools and processes.
  • Software should work, and it should accomplish the goals for which it was created, as quickly and effectively as possible.
  • It must accomplish the real goal, not my conceptualization or explanation of the goal.

Methods that enforce these concepts are successful, at least until the method takes over and the concepts are buried.  Processes stagnate, because humans are creatures of habit.  Habit isn’t bad.  It helps us reproduce good behavior.  But it can also kill us when we stop examining.  New processes, if they are any good, re-remind us of the things that matter.  They strip off the stagnation and bring us back to the things we were reminded of when the old processes were new.

Post-Waterfall is a very good thing.  Post-Agile is fine.  Post-Post-Agile will probably be fine too.  Maybe it will be a reaction against the fuzziness and a re-injection of more formality.  If so, it will be because people got too lazy with post-Agile development and devolved to ineffective chaos.  We’ll cycle around and figure out that whatever went before was all wrong.

At the base of it, its still about applying technology to make people more effective in reaching real goals.  Its the people and the goals that matter.  Pick a methodology that enforces these critical concepts, and do it until it becomes habit, then shake vigorously and repeat.  Do that until that cycle becomes habit, then do something else.  But always remember that its the people and the goals that matter, not the technology, and not the processes themselves.

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