Editor's Note: Dr. Alistair Cockburn is keynoting at The Path to Agility conference, presented by The Central Ohio Agile Association on May 20-21, 2015. The conference takes place at The Ohio Union in Columbus and showcases some of the greatest minds in Agile, with 46 speakers and 30 sessions that speak to every Agility experience level.
Alistair Cockburn: What's Next for Agile?
By Terreece Clarke, April 24th, 2015

Dr. Alistair Cockburn leaves quite an impression on those who sign up for his Advanced Agile Masterclass:

"AdvancedAgile with @TotherAlistair is like walking in as an agile Jedi then some dude with pointy horns pulls a double ended light sabre," said Todd Whitehead via Twitter.

"That was his experience and his words, not mine," Cockburn said with a laugh. "It means he came in with too much ego. The Advanced Agile masterclass is not like any IT or agile class you’ve been to... It requires thinking, feeling and introspecting deeply...The first thing I have to do is to free up some neurons in an “expert” person’s head so that they can let new ideas in. If they have too much ego, they think they know it all, they can’t learn - they just want to show off their extensive knowledge. That’s when the Sith thing happens."

If one really wants to take the Star Wars references to the next level, Cockburn is more master than apprentice when it comes to Agile. As one of the original co-authors of Manifesto for Agile Software Development, creator of the first Agile Software Development Conference and co-founder the Agile Project Leadership Network, Cockburn has watched Agile grow from infancy to what it is today. He believes that as good as the state of agile currently is, it's time to start talking about a post-agile world.

A Post-Agile World

“Post-agile” means that we’re in transition - we don’t yet know what is coming," he said. "But agile development is now used inside and outside of IT, in everything from teaching to construction to business to publishing to you-name-it. Younger people have no experience outside of it. So, the conversation now is: given all that, what?"

The ‘what’ is largely what Cockburn will discuss in his presentation at the Path to Agility Conference.

“What people talk about and now do is different from the simplistic rhetoric of the late ‘90s and early 2000’s... The one-dimensional Scrum product backlog is seen as suboptimal - maybe a good place for beginners to start, but not such a great way to run a business. Jeff Patton writes extensively about this.”

Additionally, Cockburn notes, “the notion of “velocity” is being deprecated: The idea of velocity is that the more you ship, the better. Sharp business people now want more end effect from shipping less. So, “velocity” is, for top practitioners, a negative, not a positive attribute. Gabrielle Benefield and Jeff Patton make this clear for us.”

Cockburn also doesn’t agree with the idea of agile being diluted in a problem. “The only alternative to being misunderstood and misappropriated is being ignored. And we are the not the ones who get to choose,” he said.

Humans > Technology

It is easy to assume that experts like Cockburn are tech lovers, able to trace their fascination with technology back to an early age. But the reality is, Cockburn isn’t in love with tech. The passion that fuels his work is more complex.

“I don’t [stay excited about Agile and tech]. I stay excited about people. I love their complexity. It is constantly surprising, good and bad, never ending... Even teaching basic techniques to newcomers, I have to stay attuned to their previous experiences and their contributions to the conversations. It keeps me alive and motivated in all my classes and discussions.”

“I liked solving problems in high school, somewhat by chance ended up in a Software Engineering curriculum in university and by the time I was a senior, wanted out,” he said. “However, those were the only jobs I could get, so I stayed in until I could work my way out. It took me many years, going from hardware design, to software design, to development tools research, to methodology design, where I finally discovered that methodology intersects psychology, sociology and anthropology."

"These days I’m lucky, I get to work in the psychology, sociology and anthropology of team-based design, software development being one entry. So I get to hang with the super-smart, problem-solving crowds, and do my humanistic research around them. This is fun.”

Near Failure is the Best Success

When asked what was his ‘best failure’ to date, or biggest learning experience, Cockburn expanded on why success is a better learning tool.

“Failure means that everything you knew, everything you tried, didn’t work. How long will it be before you learn finally enough to work out why you failed – years? But the learning why you failed didn’t come from the failure, it came from something else, later on, where you see something new. So, the learning doesn’t come from the failing,” he said. “The best learning comes from nearly failing but then succeeding. Out of that you get to see what change produced the magical effect.”

“The most significant learning moment for me was interviewing a development team in 1992 who was describing their intense and complete “failure” (except it wasn’t) after their first four months on a project. After their first, totally minimal and horrible delivery (see, it wasn’t a 'failure', it just wasn’t good), they brainstormed and changed everything about their project - except it’s mission. They changed most of the staff, they changed their team structure, their management structure, their learning structure, and they moved on. Every four months, they did this retrospective and change and by the end of a year had a screamingly successful project."

"My jaw dropped as the manager described all the changes they made and the results. That was the single biggest learning moment that I can recall. I had almost the exact same experience a few years later on my first big project and I applied much of their same style of changing things, with similar successful results."

"I hope you see that if you are alert, you neither have to fail to learn, nor does it even have to be your own near-failure. You can actually learn from the pain of others.”

Mastering Simplicity

Cockburn’s next steps is to explore life beyond “Ri.”

“Normally, Ri is considered the top level of skill acquisition, because it means being able to perform optimally in wildly varying situations. We see this in experts in every field,” he said. “However, as I progress and watch other top professionals and teachers, I see that they pass from being more complex in their performances to simpler...These people learn how to derive their complex performances from the very simple basics of their field. That is why these super-accomplished practitioners annoy their students by saying, 'Study the basics, practice the basics,' all the time. The students are still climbing the ladder of complexity. The master is climbing back down again."

"My practice now, with the Advanced Agile masterclass and continuing with my new and future work, is uncovering and teaching the Heart of Agile, and studying other experts in various field to see how they climb down the ladder of complexity in their arts."

"This may show up in works like Simplifying Agile Development, Simplifying Project Management, Simplifying Object-Oriented Design, and so on. Stay tuned, I guess…”