Bombarded by a decade of self-proclaimed guru’s, evangelists and other romantic revolutionaries (including myself, just to set things straight) I think we got the message by now: agile development is in, waterfall development is out. At the risk of having our readers drop out of this blog-item– and I would not blame them – let’s summarise some of the original ideas. The understanding of the objectives, possibilities and risks around a solution grows during the lifetime of a project. This is why it is better to develop a system through small pieces, going through the entire lifecycle of specification, design, build and test. Combine this with small, multi-disciplinary teams and a frequent recalibration of priorities and direction, and you get better results with more commitment in the client organisation.
When well applied, it brings you right into the heart of both the organization and the problem space. Just like with a stew, quietly simmering on the gas. Frequently, you lift the lid to stir it all a bit and have a taste. Let’s see how the flavour evolves, if the herb mix needs to be adjusted. Maybe it is even time for a new ingredient. The resulting dish is exactly what you want and it radiates the love and carefulness that have gone into it.
Almost sounds like Slow Food, doesn’t it. Not the very first association that many people nowadays would have with agile development. And indeed, practice often turns out very differently. The agile principles then seem to become an ordinary alibi for wheezy ADHD behaviour, not having to think and misplaced pragmatism. Just Do It: everybody is working hard, but the foundation is missing and the project persists in following a jittery, unpredictable path from iteration to iteration.

This situation is best illustrated by the Daily Scrum, a concept which is particularly popular with agile fans. Just like in an intense rugby scrum, the team members gather together every morning in a short, high-impact session. They all answer just three basic questions: what did you do yesterday, what will you do today and are there any impediments in your way? In such a burly, but friendly brawl, the team spirit becomes strong and tight. But before you know it, the main emphasis is on optimising micro results and it gets very far from direction, coherence, business context and architecture.
If you are all pushing each other in that small, heated circle of a scrimmage, obviously looking inward, you tend to forget about the trainer, the opponents, the field and the audience. And certainly also about the world outside.
We are a close-knit team and we build results, never mind what or why: I don’t believe this is the reason why agile development became hip in the first place. And yes, I know that if the Scrum approach is applied in the right way, there is a Product Backlog, a ScrumMaster and a Product Owner. But means and end are too often confused and people get blinded by the trendy externals and mechanisms. And no, I don’t believe one single bit of the claim that Waterfall development is back because it is more effective. But we are in need of a better balance between thinking and doing, or – as my colleague Erik Proper puts it – a better balance between ‘Think Unless’ and ‘Act Unless’.
(*) And thanks Lee Provoost for rightfully pointing out that the word ‘hip’ is only used by elderly people. Of course, ‘cool’ is much hipper. I rest my case.