Principles Over Practices and the AIC

“We value the Principles over the Practices” was one of the key learnings that I took away from the Agile Development Conference in Salt Lake City in 2004. From the start, the “leadership” of the Agile Community decided that the most important aspect of Agile was the Principles and Values, and not the Tools and Practices.

Most Agile Practitioners I know constantly dip into the Principles and Values which act as their true north for how to handle contexts that they have not encountered before. It is the principles and values that drive the creation of new tools and practices, something that was a constant in the early days of Agile. It was the principles and values that allowed people to say “That’s not Agile!”. Many a “good” idea was tossed aside because it did not align with the Agile principles and values.

The problem with the principles and values is that people need to change their values to “get Agile”. It takes time for people to make the journey to a new way of seeing and thinking about the world. And some people don’t make that journey, either because they can’t or they do not want to. By comparison, adopting Agile Practices and Tools is fairly straight forward and generally doesn’t challenge your values and principles. The result is an explosion of the Agile practices and tools, and a absence of the principles and values.

I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar to these:

  1. A flag ship “Agile” project that follows Scrum/Kanban religiously but hasn’t done a release to customers for two years.
  2. Development teams that use Given-When-Then but do not engage with the business or Product Owner.
  3. Retrospectives where people are criticised for raising issues.
  4. “Agile projects” with fixed scope, fixed budget and fixed timescales that have been negotiated in a dark room by people not involved in the delivery that does not allow for customer collaboration.
  5. Agile practices imposed on teams as “Best” practice.

Around 2010, executives in organisations across the world woke up to the promise of Agile. They noticed that teams adopting Agile were more effective than teams following traditional methods. They mandated the use of Agile because they wanted results. The results they wanted were those delivered by teams that adopted the values and principles, and not the practices and tools. Teams were not successful because they adopted Given-When-Then, they were successful because the customers and business subject matter experts were communicating effectively with developers. Teams were not successful because they adopted Jira but because they were self organising, collaborating and acting with self discipline. The results came from adopting the Principles and Values. The practices and tools were incidental and often ditched by Agile Practitioners in favour of a home grown approach that better fit the context.

In 2010, the number of Agile Practitioners was growing, but not growing as fast as demand required. This lead to a vacuum. The traditional waterfall service integrator and snake oil salesmen stepped into the vacuum and created the “Agile Industrial Complex” as Dan Mezick calls it.. “Doing it” is no longer a criteria that matters, with thought leaders promoting ideas they just made up and never tried. Self Organisation and Frequent Releases of Value are optional, to be tolerated at best. The Agile Industrial Complex sees Agile as business as usual, but with stand ups and stickies.

I see the need for a new movement, a movement that focuses on the Agile Values and Principles. Practices and Tools relegated to examples of how to implement those values and principles. A movement where only those who are “Doing It” are allowed on stage, and theorists and marketers are allowed to suggest hypotheses but not allowed to profess something as good until is properly tested in all contexts. The name I’m noodling with is “Context”. The “Context” Movement as context is what matters more than anything else.

Why is this so important now? The Agile Industrial Complex (AIC) is destroying the Agile brand that so many Agilistas have worked so hard to create. The AIC is telling clients that they have solutions (Practices and Tools) to the Scaling Agile problem, solutions that have not been tested in all contexts and could lead to major failures. Our clients deserve the Agile based on values and principles that truly delivers results. They deserve better than the roll out of sad grey practices and tools that break when they encountered new contexts that they haven’t been tested in. Our clients deserve to know that the practices and tools they are adopting have failed in certain contexts, and an understanding of the context they failed in so that they can manage the risk properly.

So lets clean ship and adopt integrity as one of our values. Lets write experience reports about the failures as well as the success. Lets acknowledge the real state of Scaled Agile.

Lets create a new community called “Context” based on the principles and values of Agile.

Lets deliver the value that our clients deserve and show them by example the difference between context and the Agile Industrial Complex. Lets show what it means to be really Agile.

  • Deliver Value
  • Reduce Lead Time
  • Sustainable Quality
  • Manage Risk

Please leave a comment regardless of whether you agree or you think I’m smoking crack.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

10 responses to “Principles Over Practices and the AIC

  • egowiz

    Great blog. And I think the AIC is to a large extent the logical result of pragmatism. And I mean here pragmatism in the philosophical sense, i.e. the belief that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards. Agile is based on the principle of empiricism, which is easily confused with pragmatism. Empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses. Seeing is believing. Pragmatism builds on the notion that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate”. But unpredictable means we don’t know the concrete outcome/ effect of something. It does not mean we don’t know the laws of nature and how things behave. A ball when pushed rolls. But where it will end up is unpredictable without knowing all the factors. It goes back to the contextual nature of knowledge. I’ll blog about this sometime.

    • theitriskmanager

      Hi Merlijn

      I agree. The whole point of Agile is pragmatism. It is things that work. The things that work happen to be principles and values. Practitioners of Agile know that there are times when the practices and tools are insufficient. Pragmatism or “what works” is all about Context. “Outside context problems” require principles and values. In addition, without principles and values, you have no way of knowing when your practices and tools are failing, and no way of recovering when they do.

      Many thanks for providing the philosophical basis for the argument.


  • KentMcDonald

    HI Chris, I agree whole heartedly and don’t think this post is any evidence that you are smoking crack (though absence of evidence should not be construed as evidence of absence).

    I’m inclined to say lets give the new community a completely incongruous name so that it won’t be as easy to steal for crass marketing purposes, but I realize that probably is wishful thinking, so context (I do think it should stay lower case) will work.

    So what are the next steps?


    Excellent read and I do agree. I also value practices ( hands on) over principle or rather both should go in parallel. I have see cases where people discuss more about agile principle/practices but don’t execute them on the ground.

    Thnaks again for your time putting these togethe very well.

  • guywinterbotham

    Peter Block in Community also uses Context in a similar. I would like to see some mention of community building around the Context as a further distinction from industrialization.

  • tumbarumba

    Regarding your point “Lets create a new community called ‘Context’ based on the principles and values of Agile”…

    May I humbly suggest that #XTC would be a excellent place to have these discussions? I think it #XTC and Context have compatible contexts 🙂

  • Five Blogs – 22 December 2016 – 5blogs

    […] Principles Over Practices and the AIC Written by: Chris Matts […]

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