Does Size Matter (in Software Development)?

When friends ask me what is the last trend in software development, I answer Lean. This approach is even easier to describe, because you can take examples outside the software industry and the most famous of them is Toyota. The recent problems faced by the Japanese car manufacturer shows that every idea could get difficulties fostering its original values when scaling and software development is no exception to this rule. I know that the Toyota situation is complex and I still believe that they did a nice job creating a special corporate culture, but for the public their image problem is there.

Agile has become “the thing to do” in software development and is now being used as the (marketing) label of every new initiative or tool. As a result, the fate of the original values of Agile Manifesto are to be diluted at best, abused at worst. I believe that the Agile Manifesto signatories were motivated by a sincere goal to give to the people involved in software development projects a better situation at a time when there could be a tendency to consider them as mere procedure performers. However, as the agile ideas spread and became successful, they meet the fact that software development is also a business for software tools vendors, consulting organizations… and media like Methods & Tools. Going from selling toaster to selling agile toaster could be now a mandatory move to be listed in the LeadingAnalystFirm Bermuda Triangle report and the front page of the press. It will however not bring any real benefits to agile or to toasters. A recent trade magazine report and tool vendor press release spoke about “taming the agile beast”. This looks like a strange appreciation of Agile. Are thinking software developers dangerous animals? Does this mean that it is times to dump Mike Cohn and instead hire Siegfried and Roy to lead your projects? As Agile spreads, so are the chances that its initial ideas will be misunderstood… and that the number of failed projects claiming to follow the Agile approach will (strongly?) increase. I add the “claim” part, because some Agilists will reply that “true” Agile project cannot fail, but this would be the topic for another discussion.

Sir Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” The fact that it could be difficult to keep the ideal of approaches that rely strongly on participants’ behavior when you scale them should not prevent us to aim for the best objectives. We have however to be realistic on the real world constraints, adapt to them and recognize that we cannot always reach perfection ;o) On this topic, I recommend the excellent books of Craig Larman and Bas Vodde on scaling lean and agile development. In the introduction of their first volume, they wrote: “Start with a small group of great people and only grow when it really starts to hurt”. I could not give you a better advice. In our software development world, the “too big to fail” motto could easily be replaced by “too big to succeed”.