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What’s the Future of Agile? Is There Something Else Coming Next?

I recently saw a discussion on an online forum where an individual raised the question of “What’s the Future of Agile?”

  • Someone speculated that the next big methodology might be Lean
  • I’ve also seen some people suggest that Kanban will become the next big methodology

I don’t believe either of those things to be correct. Here’s an article I’ve written on the relationship of Agile and Lean:

Lean and Agile – Is Lean in Conflict with Agile?

Here’s an article I’ve written on the relationship of Scrum and Kanban:

Kanban versus Scrum – Which Agile Approach Do You Prefer?

The “Program Du Jour” Effect

I’ve seen this pattern before – I call it the “Program Du Jour” pattern.  When something new comes along, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon.

The Future of Agile
Bandwagon with kids on a white background

Here’s one of my favorite quotes on this subject:

“Americans are our own worst enemy when it comes to new business concepts. We love novelty and newness. We become so enamored with new ideas, we burn through them the way a child rips through toys on Christmas morning – squeals of delight, followed by three or four minutes of interest, then onto the next plaything. That is our pattern with new management techniques, too.”

Barry Sheehy, Hyler Bracey, & Rick Frazier, Winning the Race for Value, American Management Association, 1996

The above quote was about business concepts and management techniques but the same thing can be said about methodologies.

An Example – Six Sigma

Here’s an example:

  • When Six Sigma came into vogue in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it was really hot, everyone wanted to jump on the Six Sigma bandwagon, and
  • Any other earlier process improvement approach was considered obsolete and passé.  

I published my first book on Business Excellence in 2003 and I interviewed a number of companies for my book at that time.  What I saw was a big difference in how Six Sigma was implemented:

Superficial, Mechanical Implementation

Many companies were doing Six Sigma very superficially and mechanically.

  • In these companies there was a lot of “hoopla” and very visible ceremonies about Six Sigma including Black Belts, Green Belts, etc. 
  • The implementation in many of these companies was not very successful because the company was looking for a “silver bullet” and
  • When it didn’t meet their expectations, the company tossed it out and started looking for the next “silver bullet”.

More Successful Implementation

In other companies where I thought Six Sigma was more successful and lasting, there was a big difference.  

  • Six Sigma was seen only as a tool and not a “silver bullet” or panacea,
  • People in the company understood Six Sigma at a deeper level, and
  • The implementation was not just mechanical and superficial.  
  • Six Sigma was so well-integrated into the way the company did business that it might not even have been very visible that it was Six Sigma and
  • They might not even have called it “Six Sigma”

How Does That Apply to Agile Today and the Future of Agile?

I see a similar pattern with Agile today. 

  • Many people today see “Agile” as a “silver bullet” or panacea for almost any problem you might have.
  • In many cases, the implementation of Agile is superficial and mechanical; and,
  • When it doesn’t work, there’s a tendency to toss it out and look for something new to replace it
  • I think that kind of thinking has some serious flaws

What’s Likely to Happen?

Rather than Agile being replaced by something new, what I hope that will happen is that:

1. People’s Understanding of Agile Will Mature

People’s understanding of Agile will mature. They will start to understand the principles and values behind it at a deeper level, and they will go beyond superficial and mechanical implementations

2. People Will Stop Seeing Agile as a Panacea

People will stop seeing Agile as a “panacea” or “silver bullet” for any problem you might have. Rather than force-fitting all problems to some particular methodology like Agile, they will recognize the need to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the problem

3. Agile” Does Not Make All Other Management Approaches Obsolete

People will also recognize that “Agile” does not make all other management approaches obsolete and:

  • There’s a need to see Agile and more traditional plan-driven approaches in a fresh new perspective as complementary rather being competitive
  • Various Agile approaches such as Scrum, Kanban, and Lean are also complementary to each other rather than competitive

Although I don’t see something else replacing Agile in the future, there are a number of trends that seem evident to me in the future of Agile:

1. Convergence

Traditional plan-driven project management is beginning to converge with Agile. That is definitely a strong component of the future of Agile. Agile started out as a revolution against traditional plan-driven project management practices (what many people loosely call “Waterfall”). That pendulum is starting to swing back to the middle. 

  • People are beginning to recognize that there isn’t really a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall”.
  • Rather than force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, a better solution is to fit the methodology to the nature of the problem. That may require a blend of both approaches in the right proportions to fit the situation.

2. Hybrid Approaches

Learning how to blend those approaches together requires understanding a broader range of methodologies at a deeper level.

  • Many people today do Agile somewhat mechanically “by the book” without really understanding the principles behind it.
  • That results in a somewhat rigid approach to how to apply Agile. That is exactly the opposite of the adaptive approach that is intended for Agile. Check out this article for more on that:

3. Scaling Agile

Many companies and people are attempting to scale Agile to larger and more complex, enterprise-level projects. That will accelerate both of the above trends. Agile was originally designed around small, simple, single-team projects and it can be difficult to scale. Scaling Agile often requires thinking about how to blend it with typical enterprise-level management practices. Those practices include project/program management, project/product portfolio management, and overall business management. Check out this article for more on that:

Scaling Agile and Scrum for Large, Complex Projects

4. Enterprise-level Agile Transformations

Sometimes, an attempt is made to force a whole company to be agile in order to adopt an Agile development approach. That just isn’t completely realistic or desirable in some cases. Becoming Agile is not necessarily a goal in itself. It has to be applied in the context of the company’s most critical business objectives. What problem will it solve and how will it solve it? Check out this related article for more on that:

Enterprise-level Agile Implementation

Overall Summary

It is difficult to predict the future of Agile but we can definitely see some trends evolving:

  • There has been a lot of experience applying Agile to small, simple single-team development projects; there has been far less experience in scaling Agile to larger and more complex enterprise-level solutions
  • As companies begin applying Agile on a broader scale to larger and more complex projects, in many situations, there is a need to blend Agile with some form of project or program management to be successful

Achieving that challenge requires a lot more skill and knowledge and a much more in-depth knowledge of the principles behind Agile.

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on the “Understanding Agile”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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