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Agile's Silver Bullet

16 June 2017

Shane Billings

Making a product is a difficult process. There is no way around it: Designing is difficult, developing is difficult, and testing is difficult. Organizing the work is a challenge. Defining teams takes particular care and thought. Planning effectively is a struggling art form that many find tedious and inaccurate. Teams are pressured to go beyond solving technical problems. Politics and bosses add to the strain of an already challenging environment. It would appear that everyone has a separate agenda and objective.

Dispelling the Agile silver-bullet myth

Navigating this demanding environment is what each of us is asked to do. It’s also what makes the business a target for someone selling the next metaphorical silver bullet. The problem with presenting a silver bullet is not that the solution doesn’t have merit — it is that the solution is presented as something that makes all our problems go away.

There are plenty of consultants out there who will tell you that their particular solution will make life easier. Without too much effort, you can be faster, increase quality, know your customer perfectly, and beat the market. All this is attainable while making your life easier and simpler. But this advice usually comes with a significant fee.

Agile is not a silver bullet. It won’t magically solve all problems by allowing us to reduce work and sip cold drinks on the beach. It isn’t meant to directly fix problems. Anyone who has told you this with regard to Agile is selling empty promises and inflated dreams.

Each Agile team member is a silver bullet

In fact, Agile doesn’t focus so much on the miraculous solutions; it instead focuses on creating a team culture that allows it to solve problems in the most effective way. Put another way, it makes you the silver bullet. When you come out of Agile training, you receive no solutions to specific problems. Rather, you come out with an idea as to what smart people can do and how they can interact to best solve problems. Agile teams are energized to have sustained pace; positive morale; effective meetings; effective time usage; and to secure dedicated resources, become critical thinkers, and reduce waste. None of these things directly fixes an issue, but it does put us in a mindset to come to an effective solution.

Agile planning meetings don’t create a perfect plan; they give a good enough plan that can be iterated upon. Retrospectives put the team in a room and help them decide on the next item to improve. A sprint allows the team to stop and assess potential changes. Daily stand-ups help the team communicate and make crucial decisions. Even though each of these items helps the team solve the current issues, they are not solutions in and of themselves.

Because Agile is not a silver bullet, we can even identify a weakness in the Agile philosophy. If people are the silver bullet, they can also be the dud that leads to more challenges. The biggest weakness to an Agile transformation is a team that doesn’t care or take ownership. This can take the form of lack of engagement. It can be seen in team members focusing on themselves instead of on the team. When a team doesn’t hold themselves accountable, how can we hope to solve problems or improve?

Conversely, the idea that each of us is a silver bullet also comes with having great responsibility. We have to believe we can make a difference, that we should help and be helped, that we should speak up, and that we have a stake in improvement. Agile will provide opportunities for us to do the right thing, but we have to choose to take part.

This is the nature of our business. We are the business, and the business is what we make it. The next time you hear anyone try to sell you a silver-bullet solution, remember that, in the end, you are the solution. You are the silver bullet.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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