Agile Nirvana

by Shama Bole, Sr. Agile Consultant 

Growing up, I remember being told the story of a village boy in India who, at a very tender age, wrote a famous treatise summarising his meaning-of-life philosophy and conclusions, and in the wake of that, sought samadhi (death via unending meditation) in a nearby cave that he requested be sealed thereafter. (He has been revered as a saint since the 13th century.) Apparently, life held no more questions, surprises, puzzles worth the pondering.

Unfortunately, people with a similar degree of certitude about their adoptive philosophy are rarely obliging enough to hibernate in meditative solitude. Instead, they evangelise. Nowhere is this truer than in the Agile landscape. (Well, that’s an exaggeration, given the torridity of political and religious evangelising, but it makes my point.)

I think this rather stream-of-consciousness article/gripe was borne out of some frustration with Agile converts and sometimes uninformed zealotry (which sounds breathtakingly presumptuous, I know). But, hear me out.

Art, Not Science

Agile, like project management, is more an art than science and draws more than its share of argumentative fanatics. (This may explain why physical science practitioners seem saner since they deal with absolutes, though Copernicus, Galileo et al might have deeply ironic posthumous thoughts to share on that). Art seems to have a greater margin for opinions and ambiguity and that may be the source of so much dissent within the ranks of Agilists. Natural science absolutely has its own paradigms but there is a grounding in theory and empirically measurable outcomes that is extremely challenging to achieve outside of the laboratory. Agile is very much about people, and relationships are messy things. There is no science around resolution and no clear path to some universal truth, as may be found in managing budgets or PNL statements. Dialectics is critical to intellectual progress but Agile thinkers often seem blind to all views but their own.

Unchecked Passion

Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? Not quite. My company is often engaged to effect Agile transformation, and we’re always looking to bring on folks who can accomplish that. When hiring, we look for not just competence and expertise but also a level of polish combined with amicability. Inevitably, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”, one of the harsher truths in life being that any kind of change is easier when shoehorned by someone personable. It’s not the strength of one’s convictions that sells but rather the efficacy of one’s approach. I’m sure this is true in matters of the heart as well! Too many Agilists seem to forget/ignore this principle and indulge in passion unchecked by any veneer of professionalism.

Old Wine in New Bottles

A lot of Agile presentations and written material is essentially nothing more profound than old wine in new bottles. I saw this in graduate school, where we students floundered for a dissertation topic on which to make our mark in academia. It wasn’t about original thinking, but rather about leveraging intellectual capital to launch oneself out of obscurity.

To illustrate this: at one of the conferences I attended, an Agilist gave a talk predicated on the notion that there were no values prescribed by Agile. To me, that seemed a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Agile is a philosophy, a set of values and a suggested way of interacting with the world. It’s a directional compass and a behavioural guide. No values?

More Emotional than Cerebral

To a lot of practitioners, Agile philosophy comes as epiphany, and I don’t use the word lightly. After all, what comes to your mind when you think of epiphany? To me it is the image of Archimedes shrieking “Eureka!” as he ran through the streets of Syracuse, naked from his bath, in a state of mental elevation that obliterated everyday habits of common sense and rational behaviour … a possibly apocryphal tale but who cares? What a great story!  Adopting Agile is beyond just methodology – it is an inner transformation that engages one’s passions and beliefs and value systems. To me, that puts it outside the realm of a purely cerebral exercise in project delivery. Some of the fallout/passion is attributable to that.


Other than (excess) passion, Agilists also tend to suffer from an excess of certitude and a tendency to dismiss everyone else’s opinion and store of knowledge. I’ve seen CVs posted where Agilists proclaim themselves “Masters” of Agile. Where does this hubris come from? I listened to a hilarious segment by a stand-up comedian who explains the inexplicable success of political rhetoric/pap with the following theory: people tend to see as truth (only) what they can in fact understand. However, truth can and often does come in complex and no-directions-provided packages as well. Interestingly enough, though, understanding Agile is not hard. Implementing it is tricky. The best (Agile) coaches I know are humble and genuinely put other people and their interests first. They get it.

Low Entry Point

Because Agile reads as easy, one other big casualty has been the entry of unqualified and unsuitable practitioners into the field. Maybe this is akin to why there are so many charlatans in what is called “alternative” medicine such as homeopathy and acupuncture. There are a lot of ways and reasons to explain away why outcomes are not as expected. Of course, it is circular reasoning that if Agile were practiced correctly then outcomes could always be predicted (as desired). This is why it also baffles executives who are interested only in outcomes – totally understandable – and have only a foggy conception of what Agile means. And proceed, therefore, to harry and micromanage it to death.

Team-Building, not Reputation-building

Finally, to me a good Agile coach is like a parent. It’s the daily little disciplines and acts of patience, humility (and dare I say) suffering that brings together a community of people embarked on a convergent goal. It’s not about making your mark via displays of bombastic self-virtuosity.

In conclusion: I picked the term “nirvana” almost unconsciously, but I think one aspect that calls to me is the constant striving. To be better, to keep trying, to never rest on one’s laurels. And liberation from painful habits and practices that keep us chained to mediocrity and hamper self-actualisation. (The term “best practice”, which is bandied about with unctuous glee, also makes me cringe nervously.)

Agile nirvana is a lofty ideal but one where the journey is as rich with rewards as the destination. And, my respects to the (very few) coaches who make trustworthy companions on this sojourn.

Unsure of how to begin  your journey to Agile nirvana? Our experienced Agile Team would be happy to provide you with a guide!