Unintelligent design – the abuse of ‘inspect and adapt’ in Agile practice

Are you Agile if you don’t ____?

I just read an unpublished experience report. The report observes a team with over a year’s experience together within an organization that has several other Agile teams. Each team has a adopted different set of practices.

Specifically, this team followed Scrum with the following notable exceptions: 1) they didn’t contribute to the product vision because it is not the corporate culture 2) the team didn’t retrospect because they didn’t believe they had time.

The author then went on to conclude:

Customizing practices has allowed them to apply Agile in an effective way.

A conclusion I characterize as:

a) since the team has altered or omitted some Agile practices, and b) they consider themselves successful therefore c) the compromises were necessary and effective.

I will also note that all the adaptations described were compromises to the team’s Agile practice itself and the rationale for those adaptations was to fit into the existing corporate culture.

While the case study observes the team with some rigor, it leaps to three conclusions: that the team is effective, that the specific adaptations they note contribute to the team’s effectiveness, and that the examples are evidence of a successful Agile adoption.

I believe this is a pretty common take on Agile adoption, if not in words, in execution. And it is a fundamental misreading of the goals of continuous improvement in Agile practice.

Adaptation is both a tool for survival and optimization


When we strive after Agile software development, we encounter obstacles from outside our team, from team members and within ourselves. In the face of an obstacle we ask ourselves, “Can I remove it or do I move around it?” The pragmatic and necessary answer, may be to adjust our tactics, compromise our practices and move on.

Then, as our team becomes more adept some of the ceremonies may prove unnecessary as the values which those ceremonies re-enforce become ingrained as habits. And so, again, we relax our embrace of certain practices.

As we adapt our practices, we must regularly and skeptically inspect the assumptions behind those adaptations.

We must reflect on any claim that “we have to do ______” or “we don’t need to do ______”.

So, specific to the team the doesn’t hold retros, I have two lines of enquiry:

If they don’t have time to hold retrospectives but they believe they’re important then how are they going to make time?

If they don’t believe retrospectives are valuable enough for the time they take then what about their attempts are ineffective? Do they understand why retrospection is valuable? Do they know how to facilitate one? More profoundly, is something missing in their organization: low trust among the team, no authority to act on anything that arises, or lack of trust by management? These obstacles are worse than a simple lack of time management and will cripple the team’s collective ownership.

Even a necessary, pragmatic adaptation of the moment, if pursued un-reflectively will at some point hold a team back because it either protects and carries forward a dysfunction or encourages new ones to arise around it.

When reviewing your team’s practices ask yourself: have circumstances or people changed? Has the team earned enough trust, achieved enough success to take on a previously intractable obstacle? Is it the same team? Maybe it’s time to re-adopt or refresh? Have we gained wisdom or humility? Sometimes, we cannot grasp the value we unlock if we pursue a practice until it becomes a habit. It is our job to learn, to have courage, and to make that case both to our leaders and to our peers.

As Agile practitioners, we have to understand that adaptation requires contemplation and a larger perspective. We have to challenge both the immediate obstacle and the premise behind our own decision to avoid it. We have to revisit decisions over time. And we have to embrace a vision of what we are trying to achieve that is larger than the immediate problem.

My next post will go more into the last of those concerns. A vision of what Agile adoption is meant to achieve and what I see as the great danger of naive, unreflective adaptation of its practices — surrender to the cynical misuse of the development team…

Unintelligent design -- the abuse of 'Inspect and Adapt' in Agile practice
Article Name
Unintelligent design -- the abuse of 'Inspect and Adapt' in Agile practice
In Agile practice, we must not simply adapt, we must regularly and courageously inspect the assumptions behind every adaptation we make. Every pragmatic adaptation of the moment, if pursued unreflectively, even if correct in that moment will at some point hold a team back because it either protects and carries forward a dysfunction or encourages new ones to arise around it.
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About Ken Judy

I am an executive manager, software developer, father and husband trying to do more good than harm. I am an agile practitioner. I say this fully aware I say nothing. Sold as a tool to solve problems, agile is more a set of principles that encourage us to confront problems. Broad adoption of the jargon has not resulted in wide embrace of these principles. I strive to create material and human good by respecting co-workers, telling truth to employers, improving my skills, and caring for the people affected by the software I help build.