The Agile Parallel

For nations that have known virtually nothing about individual freedom and only ever experienced tyranny, you cannot throw a switch and suddenly declare the citizenry ready for self-rule. Same goes for non-agile organizations.

The USA is probably the rarest of rare, in that we actually embarked on just such an experiment in 1776:

Can man rule themselves (without a strong tyrant*)?

* such as the Kings of Western Europe, the Czars of Russia, the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, the Emperors of assorted Chinese Dynasties, etc?

Maybe the same applies to companies as to governments as to any large organization?

After reading “The 5000 Year Leap” and many other books about the founding of the USA, I have developed an opinion that our Founders distilled the essence of Man (and our flaws) in terms of governing. Around those inherent flaws, the Founders attempted to build an organizational structure that prevents these flaws from succeeding to take hold. After all, our Founders came from a experiential base of being under Kings… but they wisely studied many forms of government, all the way back to Cicero. The last thing the Founders wanted was a strong Federal Government — or they would be right back to where they started: a Ruling Class and Kings (just under a different name).

I (*very humbly*) think the Agile Manifesto distilled the essence of Man (and our flaws) in terms of software development. It will no sooner be foolproof at preventing failures than our own representative government. Without understanding the motive forces behind the tenets of the Agile Manifesto (or the US Constitution), there is little chance that merely acting out the parts will result in lasting success.

The Founders knew that the USA will only survive as long as we have an educated citizenry that participates in trying to maintain our collective goals as a society (primarily freedom and security), while being ever vigilant about not giving away the freedom of the individual.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention, a curious Philadelphian wondering “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” to which Ben Franklin quipped: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” He wisely also asserted the challenges behind keeping it:

“In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults; if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”

I have always said, “Agile is Hard.” So is freedom, as pointed out by Thomas Paine:

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Similarly, an organization’s software development “freedom” will be limited by the understanding that the “citizenry” has of just what makes up quality software and quality processes and self-rule.

Much as it is the rare country that can pull off self-rule like the USA, it is probably the rare large organization that can achieve the same measure of success. In the business world, there is at least a chance that poor leadership in a large organization will be self-correcting via business failure (barring unnatural outside forces). What’s worse, in my opinion, is that there is virtually no corrective force at work in our Government (or military), where bureaucracy and inefficiency can grow un-checked (except by the power of the purse). In large organizations, it is is often easy for folks to “hide” in the comfortable confines of busying oneself with doing a prescribed function (or being in incessant meetings <g>)and passing it off to the next cog in the process, with nary a care if it is an effective use of your time, or not.

The Founders believed that our rights came from God (for if they came from a man — King or otherwise — they could be taken away at any time). The intent was to give the individual as much power as possible, delegating very limited powers to government. As the structure of “government” moved further from the individual, from the town to the township to the county to the state to the federal level, the powers over the individual were necessarily diminished. After all, who knows best about what the town square should have but the town folk? It’s kind of like high cohesion and low coupling…

Similarly, the Founders built in plenty of checks and balances and distributed “power.” Much like a well-oiled Agile team that embraces clients, testing, and the quality folks as checks and balances.

When a software organization is similarly structured to permit strong cohesion at the local level, and responsibility to stakeholders, and very little coupling through the levels of the organization, good things happen. Even a large organization that skillfully permits freedom at very low levels (recursive-like delegation) in the organization gains the benefits of Agile. When the power structure is turned upside down (like in large, command-and-control bureaucracies with prescriptive process, or in the US Gov’t dictating minutiae in our daily lives), less good things will happen. I might even suggest that this sort of system results in natural selection of followers/non entrepreneur types, further exacerbating the situation. But I digress…

If the percentages during the USA Revolution are any indication, one-third were for the old way, one-third were ambivalent, and only one-third were for the new way. What that bodes for Agile sweeping aside the old way, I am not sure.

Fortunately, we “Agile Founders” did not have to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Carry the freedom to deliver quality software at your core. The revolution starts with you!

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