Thoughts on Agile 2009 by Tom Grant and Dave West


Agile is dead, Long live agile.

That’s how the Agile 2009 conference in Chicago opened. In the keynote, Alistair Cockburn cleverly paraphrased Marc Antony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “I come to bury Agile, not to praise him.”

A very narrow definition of Agile has passed away, to be replaced by a mature, expansive version that has now joined the mainstream of development methodologies. Agile with a capital “A,” with its vision limited to the development team, died of natural causes. Its successor still worries about build scripts, daily Scrum meetings, and IDE plug-ins, but it recognizes the sovereignty of business objectives, and governs jointly with other methodologies. While we might talk more about agile with a small “a,” the significance of this change is big.

You could see these signs of regime change throughout the conference. The program book was a heavy tome, reflecting both the size of the audience for Agile and the scope of questions that audience brought to Chicago. Instead of presentations that argued the merits of one Agile approach over another, they focused on topics such as scale, release management and executive sponsorship. Serious project management issues such as managing resources and portfolios were as popular as development processes, such as writing good stories or building a continuous integration strategy.

Clearly, the breadth and depth of topics at Agile 2009 achieved a critical mass of energy and enthusiasm, and then some. The number of sessions was boggling, which made the conference program was a heavy tome. The sessions we attended were full of people asking questions, sharing experiences, and exchanging e-mail addresses so that they could continue these conversations. Outside the official sessions, impromptu discussion groups and project simulations filled ever alcove, seating and table area.
As apt as the Julius Caesar reference was, a different Shakespearean allusion might work even better. As you might tell from our description, Agile 2009 felt like a significant point in the history of software development, the kind of moment that reminded us of the famous speech from Henry V (paraphrased, with apologies to the Bard):

We few, we happy few, we band of builders:
For he today that finishes his sprint with me,
Shall be my brother: be he ne're so Waterfall,
This day shall improve his productivity.
And product teams elsewhere, now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here;
And hold their projects cheap, while any speaks,
That attended with us Agile 2009.

Looking at the data from numerous surveys (results to be published soon), approximately 40-45% of teams are now using Agile in some capacity. But before we crown some new Agile king, it really needs to show how it can re-shape the entire software supply chain, determining how organizations define portfolios, releases and IT strategies. This new model of governance, therefore, must apply the principles of Agile to broader problems.

For this reason, before its coronation, Agile may need to assume a different name, Lean. Where Agile has re-defined how people work within the boundaries of the development team, Lean’s dominion is the larger organization. Lean builds upon Agile, as well as other disciplines that apply to parts of the organization that share their boundaries with the development team. You might say that Agile governs one province, but Lean governs the entire kingdom.

Certainly the vendors at the conference have started to take notice of what this regime change means. The vendor village contained the old nobility of Agile tools—Rally, VersionOne, Danube, and others. As the boundaries of Agile/Lean expand, other vendors, such as Microsoft, IBM, Serena, and Microfocus (including their recent Borland acquisition) have joined the court. These vendors are less provincial, but they have had to assimilate the local dialect and customs of Agile. At the same time, the Agile tools vendors have been learning how to be more cosmopolitan, without losing touch with their essential roots.

In the next year, rather than continuing to jostle and elbow each other, some of these vendors may join forces as part of mergers and acquisitions. Others may decide to focus just on the provinces they know best.  For vendors and their customers alike, the near future may be, to use (or abuse) Shakespeare again, “the brightest heaven of invention.”

[Cross-posted at the Forrester blog for application developers and The Heretech.]