The Agile Dilemma

This article is a summary of remarks given by Russ Fletcher, Managing Director of Davisbase Consulting, at the Agilepalooza Event in Austin, Texas, in December 2013. A copy of the PowerPoint slides from the presentation is available here on

In 1997, Dr. Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School published his landmark book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Almost immediately the concepts of the book began to resonate with business leaders worldwide, and the book was voted the best business book of 1997.  The power of the book’s influence increased over the years following that launch, and the book was voted by The Economist as one of the top five most influential business books of all time.

At the heart of the book is the concept of a “disruptive innovation” or “disruptive technology.” Christensen describes a disruptive innovation as:

…a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.[1]

The idea is very simply this: established competitors in a market place distinguish themselves from their competition by listening to their customers, and moving to continually supply those customers with improved services. Eventually, upstart competitors with a different value proposition will move into the lower end of the market—in a space that the existing competitors are happy to give up (it’s the low end, after all). Those new entrants improve their functionality and market offering, until eventually they displace the existing competitors.

An analogy is the point-and-click digital camera world. Originally, digital cameras held a strong position in the casual photographer market place. They continued to add features—better resolution, faster shutter speeds, smaller size, more megapixels, etc.—and moved up market. When cell phones began to offer cameras, it drew little attention from the camera people; camera phones were decidedly “down market,” as they produced grainy photos, had to be held very still to be valuable, etc.

But cell phones offered a different value proposition—you always have your phone with you. Technology improved so that—while still not as good as point-and-shoot cameras—cell phone cameras were increasingly “good enough.” When other technology came along that made it easy to share photos from your cell phone, cameras on cell phones took the lion’s share of the digital photography market, leaving only the truly high end digital SLRs.

So what does this mean for Agile?

When Scrum was introduced in 1995, it was a disruptive innovation to the entrenched methodologies of “Waterfall” and the structure of software development organizations. But it was very narrow—specific to the individual team.  Mostly, the Agile movement was ignored by many established competitors; ITIL, for example, was preaching ever larger processes and structures through the same time period.

By 2010 Agile was widely acknowledged as a superior method of delivering software value. The Project Management Institute—at first resistant to Agile—embraced the idea of Agile-related certification in 2011. Today some form of Agile is practiced throughout the companies of the Fortune 100, the US Federal government, and in homes, schools, and associations worldwide.

So where’s the danger?

There are two key problems:

  • Market definition
  • Agile “purists”

Market definition is a problem if Agile becomes a software-only discipline. The analogy is the railroad industry: why did none of the railroad tycoons also become giants in the burgeoning airline industry? Because they defined themselves as railroad companies, instead of transportation companies; by seeing themselves so narrowly, they missed the future growth. Similarly, if Agile sees itself as purely tied to software development, it will run the risk of missing the future growth opportunities available to team-based projects management of all types.

Agile “purists” are those who say that Agile is a prescriptive process—albeit an iterative and incremental one. To the purist, “you’re not Agile unless <fill in the blank>,” where the “blank” could be anything from User Stories to daily standups to Planning Poker to paired-programming. They resist change to the process, just as waterfall or CMMI or RUP adherents resist change to their processes.

Agile has within it the concept of “Inspect and Adapt,” so it should be able to withstand the purist dilemma. However, when you have signers of the Manifesto say that, “90% of all Agile problems are simply bad Scrum” you tend to get people rigidly adhering to practices. Bad Scrum, or “Scrum-erfall”, is ceremony without understanding.  The “purists” would decry that, insisting that understanding is vital to Scrum. But by insisting on specific process steps, and telling you that you are “doing it wrong,” or that it is “Bad Scrum,” they tacitly reinforce the idea that the process is the key.

The key to Agile’s future? Broad definition of our market, and expansion, adaptation and growth to our processes. Stephen Denning was written a book, Radical Management, which applies Agile principles to standard business management. Or perhaps the concepts of open source team dynamics will be expanded to include Agile characteristics.  Agile practitioners who constantly inspect and adapt should be fine.