Personal Objections To Agile Process

By Tim Ottinger and Jeff Langr
Font is Kristen ITC

We have already discussed organizational objections to adopting Agile work methods. Here we discuss the personal objections.Agile development has never claimed to be an easy fit for all organizations.

We understand most of the reasons that agile transitions can be quite difficult for organizations. Likewise, individuals may be emotionally invested in certain structures and practives so that converting to an agile workstyle is perceived as threatening and undesirable. We again spent time collecting and categorizing a great many complaints, finally boiling (most) of them down to fit on our 7 +/- 2 bullet point format. We find the categorizations given here to be helpful, and hope that they will be useful to the coaches, managers, and developers who visit the Agile in a Flash blog.
  • Personal Bubble/Social Dysfunction The software development industry's long history of attracting anti-social sorts aside, there are some legitimate reasons that people retreat into a personal bubble. Some team members may have bad history together, ranging from the awkward (ill-fated past romance) to unpleasant (adversely opinionated pair) to intolerable (abusive partner). Some suffer from issues such as a simple timidity, fear of exposure for doing non-work tasks at the office, or a tendency toward introversion. There are iron-clad issues such as actual mental or emotional disabilities. Cultural issues can make understanding each other in a team more difficult.
    The personal bubble is a tough issue to overcome, but we don't work in tight teams because it is comfortable. We work in this manner because of the advantages it can bestow:
    • improved code quality
    • ongoing opportunities to learn new techniques
    • wider exposure to the code base
    • a trustworthy, open communication channel with the customer
    • process improvement based on experiential data
    • a team aligned on common goals
  • Lone Ranger Teamwork is the Agile Way, but some individuals prefer immediate gratification with immediate recognition. The fictitious Lone Ranger would ride into town, solve a mystery, rescue the innocent, restore the peace, and disappear, leaving behind a single silver bullet as a signature. This romantic vision is appealing to many programmers. Everyone dreams about being the hero.
    The downside is that a team is functional to the degree that it does not need to be rescued. The Lone Ranger may have been the hero of the day, but he did not share the knowledge and techniques that led to his success. The Lone Ranger does little to help the rescued learn how to solve similar problems in the future.
    A better role model is the Karate Kid's mentor, Mr. Miagi, who not only rescues Ralph Macchio's character, but also teaches him to fend for himself. Skilled practitioners who can teach others are superior assets to the team and the organization. Agile teams provide superior mentoring, which leads to teams developing the art of making good decisions.
  • Old Dog "Habit is habit," said Mark Twain, "and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time." This is especially true for those productive habits which have served us in the past. Sometimes people don't want to learn any new technologies or methods, and even those who are excited about new skills will revert to old habits under pressure.
    Agile presents significant challenges to the old dog. Practices like TDD require developers to think about solving problems in a different, even inverted manner. Agile planning can invert the flow of how everyone thinks about their work--people once at the tail end of the cycle must think about how their role changes as they look to provide value earlier and more incrementally.
    It may help to realize that agile is not only a change to how the code is written, but a way to ensure that the individuals in the team can develop personally and as a team. It is a way to optimize the meaningfulness of the work that is done. It is a means to gain respect for a developer's contribution. It is likely to increase the perceived value of the Old Dog's work, rather than merely inconvenience him.
  • Zero Sum Game It is especially hard to engender cooperative behaviors when the development team (or its leaders) are competing against each other for position, respect, compensation, or autonomy. If the team thinks in terms of a zero-sum game, then they feel that they can only win if their teammates lose. In organizations with a history or risk of layoffs, developers will scramble to avoid being at the top of the pay hierarchy or at the bottom of the performance stack, knowing that those ends tend to be chopped first. In organizations that reward individual effort, one feels the need to be the last to leave and the first to arrive to beat out his so-called "colleagues."
    Agile promotes a different system. There is more than enough work to go around, and more than enough improvement possible for us all. There is plenty of credit to share. The Mr. Miagi sharing-and-mentoring model comes into play, and we can grow through our contributions to our teammates and our project. We can all have more success, and it lessens none of us.
  • Inferiority Complex The individual may fear he is less capable than his teammates, and may seek to hide his inabilities by working alone. He may be concerned about slowing down his teammates, or dreading daily humiliation at the hands of his teammates. Looking at the famous "rock star" agile developers, the insecure developer may fear that he could never measure up. The most senior persons on a team often fear displaying their few deficiencies in a pairing session.
    The nice thing about a functional agile team is that you eventually will get over that sore ego hurdle. Things like switching pairs frequently to avoid silo pairing, collaborating in an open workspace, and delivering working software every few weeks all create true transparency.
    A motivating fact is that pair programming is a path to personal improvement. Pairing with star programmers tends to make one into a star programmer. In relatively short time, any interested individual can become surprisingly competent. It is mostly a matter of seeing how it is really done, asking questions, and getting some guided practice.
  • Superiority Complex An individual who feels she has a pretty good handle on things may also believe that it is beneath her dignity to be "forced" to work with "mediocre" teammates. She may feel that she is the only one capable of working in agile, or that she is far above the use of common methods. Sometimes she even feels that she's already learned everything worth knowing about software development. To her, teamwork requires her to drag along incompetent partners, a practice that will slow her down and provide no personal upside.
    As agile coaches, we react most strongly to the intransigent, overly cocky developer--but we need to remember that a projected superiority complex can actually be a mask for inferiority complex.Pairing can let the overconfident member fail more visibly, which can allow coworkers to help correct her shortcomings.
    Some rightfully confident developers find that they also enjoy coaching and developing their coworkers. Bluster fades when developers realize that they are not competing against each other, but against errors and code faults. Finally, a developer with top chops in a pre-agile organization will usually emerge as a leader in an agile organization as well.
  • Rejection of Insufficient Miracle The individual experiences problems in the development team that are not addressed by agile methods. She realizes that it will not make all the teammates act like best friends, and won't make customer pressures or payscale changes any better. It may not make them happier in their workspace. Since the new system does not solve their individual issues, they have no reason to use it at all. It is not miracle enough for them.
    The agile focus is on unencumbered and incremental development of the product, the team, the customer relationship, and the organization. Agile is more of a system in which to identify and address problems than it is a method or methodology.
    One might choose to wait for an absolute solution to all problems, but in the meantime it might be good to invest in daily incremental improvements. Agile--in our view, the currently best bet for most software projects--will eventually fall out of favor for a better approach. We don't know what will supplant it, but we can confidently bet that the new methods won't involve eliminating incremental growth. Good things come to those who wait, but only if they work hard while waiting.


  1. A little disappointing, Tim/Jeff.

    (I could be misreading this: perhaps you meant the post tongue-in-cheek; if so, I apologise.)

    This post is basically a combination of a (wonderfully) generic ad-hominem and false dichotomy.

    You're basically saying that if you're against Agile, then you're wrong.

    (Actually, you're saying that if you're against Agile then you have a social dysfunction, or a faux hero, or you have some psychological complex ...)

    The problem, of course, is that a person may have other reasons to object to Agile and the reasons may be valid.

    / Shmoo.

  2. More accurately, we're saying that these kinds of reasons for resisting agile are wrong.

    This deck is written mostly to help agile coaches and teams, and the objections here are common categories of objections we've heard, and (usually) overcome. They are not valid reasons for not doing work in an agile way.

    We mention that bad history between people is a legitimate concern. I've been on teams where one or two individuals had verbally abused the others and belittled them to superiors, making teamwork impossible. I've also seen actual psychologist-diagnosed social disabilities cause troubles.

    The zero-sum game is environmental, not personal. It's a case of a bad system needing change, not a personal problem. Often the Lone Ranger issue is related to a misguided rewards system as well. People like drama.

    I am interested in other reasons why people cannot or should not work in an agile way but I can not offer coaching advice about those reasons.

    Would you like to offer up a few for a future card?