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Alex Hildyard

We all have our little bugbears, and something that has given me particular pause over the years is the place of Agility in the software development life cycle. While I have seen it used successfully on both small and Enterprise-level projects, I have also seen many instances in which long-standing technical debt has also originated under its watch. Ironically the problem in such cases seems to me not that the practitioners in question have failed to follow due process (Test, Develop, Refactor -- a common "what" of Agile), but basically that they have missed the point (the "why" of Agile). It's probably a sign of my age that I'm much more interested in the "why" than the "what", since I feel that the latter falls out naturally from the former, but that this is not a reciprocal relationship.

Consider Dadaism, precursor to the Surrealist movement in the early part of the twentieth century. Anyone could stand up and proclaim he or she was Dada; anyone could write cut-ups, or pull words out a hat, or produce gibberish on duelling typewriters under the inspiration of Dada. And all that took place at such performances was a manifestation of Dada, and all the artefacts that resulted were also Dada. Hence one commentator's engimatic observation that 'when one speaks of Dada, then one speaks of Dada. But when one does not speak of Dada, one still speaks of Dada.'

What is Dada? Literally, Dada is what you say it is. But that's also missing the point. Dada is about erecting a framework within which utterances like this are valid; Dada is about preparing a stage for itself. Dadaism exemplifies the purity of a process-driven ideology -- in fact an ideology that is almost pure process, with nothing extraneous in the way of formal method, and while perhaps Agile delivery should not embrace the liberties of Dadaism too literally, some of the similarities nevertheless are salutary.

Agile -- like Dada -- is an attitude; it is about *being* agile; it is not really about doing a specific set of things that are somehow *part* of being Agile. It is an abstract base rather than an implementation, a characteristic rather than a factor. It is the pragmatic response to the need for change in the face of partial information, ephemeral requirements and a healthy dose of systematic uncertainty.

In practice this will usually mean repeatedly making the smallest useful changes to a system, recognising that systems evolve, and that all change carries risk. It will usually mean that instead of investing effort in future-proofing a system against a known technology roadmap, one instead invests one's energies in the daily repetition and incremental development of processes best designed to accommodate change quickly. But though it may mean these things in practice, it isn't actually *about* either of these things; it's about the mindset, the attitude that conceives of such responses as sensible solutions given the larger and ultimately unclassifiable thing that constitutes the development lifecycle of a specific project.

Posted on Friday, October 5, 2012 10:37 AM | Back to top

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