Agile Versus DevOps – Who Cares?

Many argue that there is a substantial difference between “DevOps” and “Agile”. I think it’s semantics and here’s why.

Undoubtedly, if we are to be precious about wording they are two rather different concepts with Agile arguably being either a description of a set of practices and processes or a set of values that guide the way we run a project (primarily in software development for the time being) whereas DevOps refers to an umbrella vision of what used to be disparate functions of the organization from development and testing to other operational functions and the way the magic of automation can redefine the organization. As such, it would seem at first glance as if it’s a tactic versus strategy. One execution, the other vision.

I put it to you though, that those of us who would even be interested in debating the difference “get it”. We have nothing in common with the ones sitting on the sidelines hoping and praying it will all just go away and we can go back to BAU. We are the -sadly- small minority of people who “saw the Agile light”. A tiny tribe. As such we’re doing the larger community a disservice by discussing it. Which is why, many DevOps professionals don’t declare themselves as either Agile or DevOps-y but carry on as unsung heroes in often unsung hero roles behind titles stuck in the 90s that reflect little if anything of their view of the world.

The reality is that both Agile and DevOps are descriptors of a mindset that needs to power a very different work culture than anything organizations have experienced until 20 years ago and while we like to eternally complain about how slow this change is and how old the manifesto, realistically in the grand scheme of things, a few decades for a radical mind shift is trivial.

We are asking humans who have been indoctrinated in a very different way of work to forgo what they have learned and used before with varying degrees of success and understand there is a vastly different way of doing things that will enable them to do more, faster. We pinky promise it works. We cite vague statistics and point at the guys that did it. We bring a few expensive power points and an army of coaches and eventually, their habits, their rituals, the shape of their to-dos and the tools they use, give way to new ones and hey presto, they are now Agile. In the imaginary Backlog of the company’s board where “become Agile” or even “perform digital transformation” is a card that’s been moved to In Progress -often with a McKinsey sticker next to it- it can now be moved to “Done” because all developers are standing up in the Scrum meetings. Now they can go back to musing who should move the “Make more $” and the “Make customers love us” tickets.

Needless to say, we’re nowhere near performing any celebratory retros and the ticket has been moved around for no reason at all.

Sometimes it’s us in the tiny tribe that have let that card be moved for no reason because we feel in our heart of hearts that cargo culture is better than no culture at all. We know people waterfall in their heads or even in secret alternative WhatsApp groups (yes, that’s a real life thing, as a CTO who got invited to a group which he assumed had been created to coordinate the next set of pints discovered when he realized all the PMOs and scrum masters were on about was how pointless this whole Agile thing is and that they need to update their Prince3 certificates).  We know but we hope against hope that, if they can’t place an emotional intelligence powered bet on the fact that this major change, uncomfortable as it may be will be beneficial, they can at least recognize results and start warming up to it based on practices and undeniable every-sprint-benefits.

Is this bet correct? Can imposed habit result in real change? It can certainly change actions and behaviors but in the absence of deep buy-in it can’t change the mindset and it is that which needs revamping before we can argue if we should use one term or another to describe it.

How do we get true buy-in, how do we make people “see the light” and join the tribe is the real question that springs from every bit agile heart. Coaching I both love and loathe. I love it because, if done right, it’s people speaking from the heart to other people about how they “got it” themselves. It’s religious evangelism yes, and as such not exactly savory but it’s effective because it’s intensely human. However, if not done with enough abandonment and intense passion and with enough vision top-down, it’s nothing but a bums-on-seats exercise that results in a Frankenstein culture of old and new complete with shadow IT and unsafe, mixed up individuals and teams.

So at this point, we have bigger fish to fry than argue over terms even when they are worthwhile conceptual terms we argue about not silly distinctions between Scrum or Kanban. We, the tribe have to take an honest look around and offer a real “got it” score. Be honest about who has seen the light or not or even who has seen it and unseen it, look at those around us and look at our own self because heaven knows it’s easy to slip and slide into old thought patterns and if the score is not that great demand we return to basics. The principles. The point. The spirit. Collaboration. Heart. Courage. Forget what we call it and what we apply it to. Forget the burn chart – are your people getting it and feeling safe enough to keep doing it? Forget the velocity – are they just doing “agile by numbers”? Nevermind the code, the automation tools du-jour and the integrated pipe in the cloud – does everyone have at least one agile to-do of their own outside of work?

If you’re serious about this, Better and Faster Culture Maker ™ what ever you call yourself, it’s time to get disgustingly metaphysical and ask yourself: Are your people agile at heart and devopsy in mind? Who all are your people? Are you? I know you are. I know your heart is in the right agile place in the most spectacular of ways and you are the people with the most knowledge and bravery to add to it so everyone collectively needs you.

Disclaimer: I am NOT a specific Agile-anything advocate. I am not a tools and process hater. I am not disregarding the spirit of “over process and tools” in the manifesto when I replace it with “all about people” for much needed emphasis. I do understand what DevOps consists of on paper. I do understand why there’s a mistrust of the term Agile for some people. I do realize there will be dead horse’s heads on my doorstep and I will frame them all as a sign that our collective agile heart is in the right place enough that we passionately and fervently disagree. I do believe we have a moral duty to go back to basics and bring along the vast majority that fell through the cracks and never “got it” and make them part of the tribe. I do think it will all go horribly wrong if not and we are wasting precious time with semantic in-tribe debates. I DO NOT CARE what we call it! This flexible, collaborative, courageous, smart way of thinking that makes us faster and better.

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