Can Agile Horses Sing?

May 2012

While lazying in the back garden I've had lots of time to reflect on the last 12 months. I've always thought that the retrospective was one of the best parts of Agile (or indeed of any decent project management methodology) because it's the one opportunity to concentrate on simply doing things better.

So have I learnt anything that will help me help others better in the next 12 months? I guess that one of the advantages of being a turnaround project manager is that you get to see a lot of project train wrecks and get the opportunity to see them become successful ventures. Ok, they don't always deliver exactly what you'd hoped when you put together the business plan, but in most cases they deliver greater value simply because you had to concentrate on what you needed rather than what you wanted.

I've a few pet hates. One of those are people who seem to think that they can "diss" the case for Agile by saying "...oh yeah BUT in the REAL WORLD..." I've spent the last 6 months helping my eldest daughter with her philosophy A2 Level and 50% of that seemed to be about deciding if the world we live in really exists or not. There are arguments that it's completely in our heads, that we rely on sensory data and make up a world to interpret it and that none of us really see the real world - it's a bit like watching a film.

That's exactly how a recent experience has been for me. I feel I've been living in a surreal environment which is so far from the real world that I'm beginning to believe what all those philosophers were on about - it's just like watching a film. Unfortunately not a comedy, although there have been moments, nor an action filled movie. If I had to describe the style I would have said a bit like the Hammer Horror films of the 70's - unbelievable storyline, no real purpose and a lack of anything that you can relate to real world thinking.

Let me expand. Firstly they really think that they're Agile. They have a Scrum Board, hold daily stand-ups (ok they have 20 people attending and they take over 90 mins, but they do stand-up) and they consume vast quantities of post-it notes. I've watched this board for the last three weeks. Every day they discuss progress but not one single post-it note has ever moved. I actually checked to see if they were glued down. They've never seen anyone from the business but they don't need to because they already know what the solution is. One product owner dared to send a list of requirements and these were immediately put onto post-it notes and placed in the "blocked" column on the Scrum board - "At least it looks like we're working on those if Bob turns up one day".

Yesterday I sat in a meeting where the IS Programme Manager presented the plans for the next release which is happening in 10 weeks! Actually, he also presented what would be in the releases in Q1, Q2 & Q3 for 2012 as well.  So let's get this straight - Detailed project plans for 2011 & 2012, releases fixed 12 months in advance, scrums of 20+ people having one & a half hour meetings every morning and a lack of customer involvement in development - but we're Agile? I ran the first Agile Training sessions this week and everyone loved it. Of course "it won't work in the real world..." was the general feeling.  "And what you're doing does?" I argued.  "Every project you have running is late & over budget, customers are complaining about bug-filled software & threatening to leave and staff turnover reaching 40% per year". Apparently that's the point - they're running Agile and it clearly doesn't work in the real world.

Sadly, I don't think I can convince them - they really believe that they've adopted Agile and they really believe they're living in the "real world".  It's a shame, because the business proposition they have is fantastic but they can't change their mind-set sufficiently to deliver a solution to meet it. 

But I've accepted the challenge because it reminds me of the story of the Prisoner & the King. 

Nasrudin was caught in the act and sentenced to die. Hauled up before the king, he was asked by the Royal Presence: "Is there any reason at all why I shouldn't have your head off right now?" To which he replied: "Oh, King, live forever! Know that I, the mullah Nasrudin, am the greatest teacher in your kingdom, and it would surely be a waste to kill such a great teacher. So skilled am I that I could even teach your favourite horse to sing, given a year to work on it." The king was amused, and said: "Very well then, you move into the stable immediately, and if the horse isn't singing a year from now, we'll think of something interesting to do with you."

As he was returning to his cell to pick up his spare rags, his cellmate remonstrated with him: "Now that was really stupid. You know you can't teach that horse to sing, no matter how long you try."

Nasrudin's response: "Not at all. I have a year now that I didn't have before. And a lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die.

"And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing."

and just maybe I can convince them to become really Agile?

- Mike

Mike Hesketh is an Agile Evangelist but with a practical approach. He's worked with a wide range of companies helping them successfully adopt Agile and Waterfall practices. He is also the author of the Keeping Agile Simple blog and you can follow his thoughts & experiences on Twitter (@keepagilesimple) as well as subscribing to the KeepAgileSimple newsletter.

We would love to hear your news and thoughts or any comments you have on this article – please do send to us anything you feel is important to you via email, perhaps an experience you would like to share with the rest of the world, general thoughts on project management or even a good piece of gossip.

Jennifer Bleen - 22nd October 2012

"Just read 'Can agile horses sing?' You had me laughing out loud. So true, the 'reality' is such a shame :( Thanks for sharing"


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