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Twelve Mistakes in Agile Manifesto

Nowadays, Agile Manifesto is a Bible of numerous software teams. It contains 12 principles which show us how software development should be organized. These principles were invented in 2001. Generally, I like and agree with all of them. However, in practice, most software teams misunderstand them. Consequently, here is a summary of what's going on and my interpretation of each principle.

Principle #1: "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software."

By focusing on "satisfy the customer", Agile adepts totally forget about the "through" part. They think that a happy customer is their true objective, while "continuous delivery" is something that obviously helps, though not crucially. However, this is quite the opposite—the customer will be satisfied if the software is perfectly created and delivered. If the customer is not satisfied, we find another customer—that's the true spirit a professional software team should adhere to. I believe that's what the Manifesto means. We make sure that our process is "early and continuous", which will result to customer satisfaction. We focus on improving our process, not satisfying the customer. Satisfaction is the consequence, not the primary objective.

Principle #2: "Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage."

Most Agile teams understand the word "welcome" here as a permission to forget about any requirements management at all. What is the easiest way to welcome change? Obviously, just get rid of any requirement documents! In this case, any change will be welcome, since it won't affect anything. There simply won't be anything to affect. But this is not what the Manifesto means! This principle means that our requirements management process is so powerful that it can accept change at any moment. However, it's rather difficult to achieve, if requirements are actually documented.

Principle #3: "Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale."

This terrific rule is usually understood as an order for the entire team. The team has to frequently deliver, while programmers are free to deliver almost nothing and who knows when. I think the Manifesto here is emphasizing on both individual and group responsibilities to frequently deliver. I also think that this frequency should be way higher than just a "couple of weeks". Today, with modern technologies and instruments, we can deliver way faster—several times a day.

Principle #4: "Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project."

Working together doesn't mean working without clearly defined rules and processes. However, most teams understand this principle as a legalization of chaos. They think that since we work together, we don't need to define roles any more, we should not document requirements, we shouldn't care about responsibilities. Ultimately in the end, we neither know who is doing what nor the team's structure. That's not what the Manifesto is talking about! "Working together" means quicker turnarounds in communication and shorter response cycles. It definitely doesn't mean lack of roles and responsibilities.

Principle #5: "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."

Trust is a great word and concept, but it doesn't replace another equally great word—control. Most Agile teams think that trust means exactly that—complete lack of any validation, verification, responsibility, and control. "We trust our programmers to write perfect codes"—I've heard that countless times which is simply wrong. This principle means something completely different. It means that when clearly defined tasks are assigned to their performers, we fully delegate responsibilities to them. We motivate them to be fully responsible for the end result. However, we don't help them. Instead, we trust them as self-sufficient individuals, capable of completing assigned tasks on their own.

Principle #6: "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation."

Face-to-face doesn't mean sitting in the same office. The Manifesto doesn't say anything about co-located or distributed teams. It's obvious that in modern software projects, virtual communications (over video calls) are way more effective than staying together in the same country, same city, same office, and same room. Therefore, most Agile adepts still promote on-site development style, using Agile Manifesto as proof. That's a mistake; face-to-face means something totally different from what it meant 15 years ago, when the Manifesto was written.

Principle #7: "Working software is the primary measure of progress."

This doesn't mean that we should not measure anything else. Of course, the working software is the primary measure, but there are many other measures, which we can and must use. For example, the amount of features documented, implemented and delivered; or the amount of lines of code added to the project (don't smile, read); or the amount of bugs found; or the amounts of dollars spent. There are many other metrics. We can use many of them. However, a typical mistake many Agile teams are doing is just ignoring them all. They say "we measure only the end result". That's not what the Manifesto is suggesting to do though.

Principle #8: "Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely."

This doesn't mean that we should indefinitely burn customers' money. Yes, we should be developing at some given speed, but we should always remember whose money we're spending—customers' money. The Manifesto doesn't say anything about the cost of development and that's probably because it was written by those who make money (programmers), not those who spend it (customers). We must therefore remember that any project is first of all a money burning machine. That's why the team must always measure its burn rate and make sure it's aligned with the amount of business value the team delivers. Just being a happy team is not what the Manifesto suggests, but that's exactly how many understand this principle.

Principle #9: "Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility."

That's a perfect principle that says so much and doesn't say anything at the same time. What exactly is "attention"? I can explain. It means rules and policies. First of all, any policy means punishment to those who violate rules. Thus, if an Agile team really means continuous attention to technical excellence, it must have a quality policy. That policy must clearly define which design is good and which is bad, which piece of Java code is excellent, which is ugly, etc. Additionally, the policy must say what happens to those who violate the principles of excellence. However, most Agile teams understand "quality" as a great flag to hang on the wall, but get scared when I ask, "what happens if someone delivers low quality?".

Principle #10: "Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential."

That's a great rule which most Agile teams don't follow at all. This principle means that our tasks are small and simple enough to make sure they are either doable or cancellable. Huge tasks are the biggest threat to manageability of any team, be it Agile or not. This principle encourages us to give programmers small tasks, which they can easily be completed. However, most of Agile adepts simplicity being equal to stupidity. They are not equal. A simple task doesn't mean a stupid or non-important tasks. A simple task is a clearly defined, small, and doable work order.

Principle #11: "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams."

Self-organized doesn't mean un-organized. This rule is often translated as a legalization of anarchy. We don't need any project managers, processes, discipline, rules, or policies—we've got holacracy instead! We also don't need a software architect—our programmers can make all technical decisions at regular meetings! Furthermore, we don't want our programmers to be individually responsible for anything—they are always together in all risks and issues. Stop that nonsense! This is not what the Manifesto means. A self-organizing team is a team that doesn't need any supervision from the outside; a team that has clearly defined roles from the inside; a team with a perfect inner discipline; a team with professional management. Not with the lack of all that.

Principle #12: "At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly."

That's a great principle which is translated into so-called retrospective meetings. They work just fine as long as decisions make the team better. Unfortunately, in most cases, programmers in Agile teams are trying to survive, instead of making their teams more effective. Even though the principle says that the team has to become more effective, those retrospective meetings help programmers to become more effective (read "more secure") in the team. That's only natural for people, but leads to the overall degradation of the team. It's well known that the best team is the one that is capable of quickly and inevitably rejecting bad elements. Does your team do that effectively? Do retrospective meetings help in that? I doubt it. Therefore, I believe that what the Manifesto means here is not the meetings. It means that the team must have an effective mechanism of self-regulation and self-improvement. Additionally, retrospective meetings simply can't be that mechanism because they prevent the team from making difficult disciplinary decisions.