Agile development: creed or ethos?

August 13, 2008

In my encounters with Agile development, including the research that I’m doing now, I’ve seen two perspectives on the Agile methodology (pick whichever one you prefer):

  • Agile as a creed. One type of Agile enthusiast treats the methodology of choice as a set of firm guidelines, to be followed or ignored (at your peril). The closer you get to orthodoxy, as the Pharisees communicate by voice or in print, the better the results.
  • Agile as an ethos. The other species of Agile enthusiast sees the methodology as a guide to action. Perfect adherence to its principles are impossible in an imperfect world, so the goal is to add a healthy dose of Agile to the blend of different techniques and imperatives.

I’m in no position yet to pronounce on the superiority of one perspective or another. (I might talk off the top of my head, but I’d rather do the research yet.) However, it’s worth taking the impressionistic data at hand to identify these two approaches, and understand what the two types of Agile enthusiasts are trying to achieve. People who clash over Agile principles or their application, may be looking at the development process through very different lenses.

The distinction between creed and ethos suggests some historical parallels. (Bear with me here if you don’t have the same zeal for history that I do.) Many religions go through pendulum swings between the extremes of creed and ethos. For example, in medieval Europe, new monastic orders, such as the Benedictines, Franciscans, and Dominicans, emerged as a reaction to the perceived corruption of their predecessors. A new order offered its members the chance to live a purer life–at least for the time being.

However, over time, some of the strictures proved impossible to apply perfectly in the real world. Compromises had to be made–a blind eye to money-lending, or an acceptance of the messy problems of politics that came with grants of land and offices–which inevitably led the monks away from the purity they had once enjoyed. These imperfections others to found new monastic orders…And the cycle started all over again.

Similar cycles of reaction and re-constitution occurred in the history of Islam, Judaism, and other religions. It’s part of human nature outside the spiritual realm as well.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear yardstick for measuring who’s right. The believers in a creed have a point: unless you treat the guidelines very seriously, natural decay will set in. The followers of an ethos also make an important point: if you act as though compromises are never acceptable, your potential followers may reject a highly unrealistic approach.

If a few thousand years of religious history hasn’t produced a solution to this dilemma, nor will several years of implementing Agile in development organizations. At the very least, the people sitting across the conference room table can understand their different attitudes, and try to agree on the measures for what ultimately they’re both trying to achieve.


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