Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Pragmatism is a word I hear quite often in my coaching life. Webster's defines pragmatism as "a practical approach to problems and affairs." To me, that is also the definition of Agile. Every minute of training or coaching I deliver is devoted to building a practical approach to whatever problems the client is facing. With its focus on flexible planning based on realistic time horizons, short-term commitments, frequent deliveries and adjustments, Agile is the acme of pragmatism.

Where I find the term pragmatism problematic is when clients or colleagues use it as an excuse to paper over or otherwise avoid addressing issues that Agile principles and practices expose. Overcoming impediments is a part of the Agile game and the only path to continuous improvement, so declaring that some set of organizational or corporate-cultural impediments cannot be overcome is simple capitulation, not pragmatism.

That is not to say, of course, that it is possible or even desirable to change everything about an organization overnight. Successful Agile coaches -- and successful Agile clients -- are committed to playing by the rules of the game, even if getting there is a process of incremental change rather than a single, sweeping event.

The vital thing to keep in mind is that Agile, whether XP, Scrum, Lean, etc., or some combination, is a framework, something like a scaffold, in which every key aspect depends on other key aspects. What this means in practice is that for companies to be successful with Agile, they -- and their Agile coaches -- cannot pick and choose amongst the principles and key practices, deciding to implement some and ignoring those that are difficult or otherwise inconvenient. As Takeuchi and Nonaka* put it so succinctly 25 years ago when they wrote about a new way of developing products: "These characteristics are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each element, by itself, does not bring about speed and flexibility. But taken as a whole, the characteristics can produce a powerful new set of dynamics that will make a difference."

Agile today is no different than the "new new product development game" Takeuchi and Nonaka described in their ground-breaking article. Pragmatism does not mean dropping the troublesome pieces of the puzzle on the floor; it means finding practical ways to implement the key practices and all Agile principles in a given context. And that is "a practical approach to problems and affairs."

All for now....


*Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. "The New New Product Development Game." Harvard Business Review, January 1986, p. 138.

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