Misunderstanding Fake Agile – The Agile Game of Thrones

A remarkable pattern is occurring right now. And for many years. We thought the agile war was over? Experts that are supposedly focused on improving organizations around the world have given in to a state of confusion, or perhaps pure jealousy and selfishness, that leads them down a path of destruction of people and things. And we all thought the Agile revolution was about “helping others do it, better.” On face value, the Agile Manifesto is about BUILDING and CONSTRUCTING a better culture. Through building new habits based on the four core values and twelve principles.

A small minority of the industries’ practitioners that claim the mantle of Agile, but are poor exemplars of it, have taken to the interwebs with a burning motive to destroy and/or malign certain frameworks and methods that they do not agree with. They do this in the face of great successes and dozens upon dozens of business case studies, and positive business results. Surely not all use of a tool results in positive change. That could be descriptive of any tool. They provide very little [read: none at all] real evidence and root cause to support their assertions. Which is odd because many also claim to be scientists.

The Denning Effect

Agile Without The Label 
The definition recognizes that some of the most successful Agile implementations use home-grown terminology. In other words, these firms don’t even call themselves Agile and shy away from standard Agile vocabulary, some of which (like Scrum) was deliberately devised to be unattractive to management. Thus, most of the largest and fastest-growing firms on the planet—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Microsoft—are recognizably Agile in much of what they do, even though they generally don’t use standard Agile vocabulary. Their business agility is an important reason why they have become the most valuable firms in the world.

Denning – Understanding Fake Agile

This is very interesting. Denning is stating that some big players in the tech industry have achieved a state of organizational agility, exemplifying agile behaviors. He even calls out Microsoft. A huge company with lots of value streams and products and people. A linked article discusses the use of Agile to drive new habits and behaviors in parts of the organization. The attribution of course in those articles is to the house (Game of Agile Thrones) aligned “Scrum” favorite. Which is great! Most agilists know and love Scrum as a great tool to be used with Agile and other practices and knowledge to move the needle.

So, Denning made a generic statement about Microsoft displaying Agile behaviors systemically. What other parts of Microsoft are agile? Supply chain perhaps? Others? There is ample evidence that Microsoft is practicing agile behaviors in many parts of the organization. They are also not using just one source of guidance. It turns out that large parts of Microsoft have become Agile, according to Denning, through the use of the Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe.

To address these issues, we studied third-party frameworks for applying agile to enterprise projects, such as Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Software and Systems Engineering (SAFe), and used them as a basis for developing our own approach. We’re now in the process of applying our framework to enterprise projects.


Microsoft used SAFe exactly as intended, as guidance, to guide and transform an organization by building new habits based on the goodness of the collection of knowledge included in the SAFe. Achieving organizational agility is hard. Organizational change management is a challenging field, as professed and experienced for over a 100 years in I/O Psychology, a more profound and professional body of knowledge and practices that has superseded the Agile revolution and her branches and also grown through kaizen to encompass a broad body of practices and knowledge.

Scaling Frameworks: SAFe
A particularly unfortunate form of “branded Agile” concerns scaling frameworks. These are schemes aimed at helping firms that have some teams implementing Agile practices and want to resolve the tension between the Agile teams and the back-office systems of the organization (such as strategy, planning, budget, HR, Finance) which are typically monolithic and bureaucratic.

The challenge is usually presented as one of “scaling up agile.” The issue here is that if the firm is thinking about ” scaling up agile”, it is already on the wrong track. The challenge of genuine Agile is how to descale big monolithic, internally-focused systems into tasks that can be run by small self-managing customer-focused teams.

A particularly worrying variant is the Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe. Essentially this is codified bureaucracy, in which the customer is almost totally absent. It is now pervasive in large firms because it gives the management a mandate to call themselves agile and keep doing what they have always done. Essentially it subordinates the agile teams to the bureaucracy, rather than doing what is necessary to achieve business agility, namely, namely, transform the big monolithic internally-focused systems into arrangements where the budgets, HR, Finance and so on are flexible and externally focused in support the Agile teams in operations. The insignificant role of the customer in the chart above is indicative of the problem.

There is a risk that SAFe is discrediting genuine Agile. It’s an illustration of Gresham’s Law: bad money drives out the good. When this happens SAFe is the epitome of “fake Agile.” It is possible that when SAFe is implemented by managers with a genuine Agile mindset, its negative side effects can be mitigated. My question would be: why would anyone with a genuine Agile mindset be using SAFe in the first place?


Don’t be so serious Agile zealots. You risk making yourself look foolish.

So. When folks like Denning behave in the way in which they do, focusing on the wrong things, and saying deconstructive, non-productive things, they diminish the entire Agile revolution. Especially when this is done in the name of competition, not science, nor based on any actual evidence. Root causes anyone?

There is no perfect approach, no perfect framework or method or tool for addressing complex adaptive systems as organizations. The self-professed curmudgeon, the agile zealot, they all know this deep down just like Mr. Denning. Rather than spending energy attacking and maligning the competition, perhaps the Agile zealots should spend their energy actually practicing Agile by helping others do it, better.

Time for another sports analogy

A football coach is facilitating a spring practice. He notices one of the players (coincidentally in this story, Tom Brady) is not wearing the correct color jersey. It’s a shade off, perhaps, but still the schools bright blue and white colors. So, the coach, pissed off that the player was dumb enough to wear a different jersey runs over and begins his tirade. Tom, what in the hell are you doing you idiot?! You are wearing a jersey that is not the right color, it’s faded! It is not even a jersey! You are a cancer and parasite to this team, a codified bureaucratic nightmare, and you most certainly are NOT a football player!

Tom responds, “coach, I’ve been wearing this jersey for over forty years. It has been with me the entire time, scars and dents and dings, all. I’ve earned this faded jersey playing in over 100 playoff games. It is part of my game plan, how I execute, and we’ve won and lost games when I practiced in this uniform. I still love my team and this is still our team jersey. It is faded because it has experience. I don’t have a problem with the newer jerseys. I support all of my teammates. But this jersey is my thing, my way of practicing football. At the end of the day it is about our team winning the championship, not the jersey.”

The coach, admonished, and feeling like a total jerk, apologized to Tom profusely and promised that he would never again go off his rocker. Instead he would focus on helping Tom become a better football player by being a true coach, objectively analyzing his play, and providing positive constructive feedback.

Coach of the year award or horses ass?

Microsoft – Meeting the challenges of Agile development

A fourth law

The three laws of Agile are thus:
the Law of the Customer—an obsession with delivering value to customers as the be-all and end-all of the organization.
the Law of the Small Team—a presumption that all work be carried out by small self -organizing teams, working in short cycles and focused on delivering value to customers—and
the Law of the Network—a continuing effort to obliterate bureaucracy and top-down hierarchy so that the firm operates as an interacting network of teams, all focused on working together to deliver increasing value to customers.

Steve Denning – Laws of Agile

Perhaps Mr. Denning should create a fourth law. The Law of actually using the scientific method, diving into the hypothesis with a sound testing paradigm, and observing outcomes in an unbiased manner.

From the perspective of a free thinker not bound by the agile religious zealotry displayed by Denning, the Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Enterprises embodies all the laws as Mr. Denning has written them. It could be argued that based on the adoption rate of SAFe (as the market leader at 30% and 5% CAGR) by the Fortune 100 and hundreds of other businesses that these consumers of the SAFe are actually experiencing the realization of these laws in their enterprises through the use of SAFe as guidance.

There is a risk that SAFe is discrediting genuine Agile.


Mr. Denning, you are the one who is discrediting Agile. Your behavior (and many others) is not aligned to the Agile Manifesto. It appears that you have no discernment, no interest in seeking the truth, and are simply a pawn the agile war games searching for the next best move to get your Idol on the Game of Agile Thrones. Your invective is transparent. Don’t hide behind hollow words and shallow opinions. #nothrones

The risk here is that a huge freaking dragon will come along and burn the whole thing to the ground.

Lead with love

Lead with love or don’t try at all. The Agile community needs UNITY, not hate and discontent.

Please. Stop. The hate machine.

Image result for heart






Published by Marshall Guillory - Blogagility.com

Information Technology professional, transformation leader, agile evangelist & coach, change agent, scrum master, servant leader and more...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: