Dogmatic and Pragmatic Agile: A necessary contradiction on the agile journey

“The difference between information and intelligence is context.”

There is a time for dogmatism (to be “by the book”) and a time for pragmatism (to be practical).

The path to success is often filled with contradictions, and the journey to team agility is no different. Speak to a Scrum Master or Agile Coach on a mature team and they will tell you that dogmatic agile is their enemy, that it is harmful and holds back progress. This statement is true, but also contains an important caveat – it is their enemy today because they are a mature team. They understand agile and they understand themselves – dogmatism has no place here.

Agile lends itself well to situational leadership or the SLII model. Teams and individuals progress and their needs become different. What is helpful for one team won’t be appropriate for another (or even for the same team at a different point in time). Therefore, it is important to note that there is time (hopefully short) where dogmatic agile is appropriate for a team.

Tuckman's Stages of Group Development

Dogmatic Beginnings 

Agile is about flexibility, and about adapting – so when would a dogmatic approach ever be acceptable? When you have a new team with very little or no Agile experience. The reason being, if a group doesn’t fully understand agile (or themselves) it is important to follow what the framework prescribes as much as possible. Adopting a new way of working is challenging, and in a framework that promotes change and empowers workers, it is often tempting to try to change parts of the framework that are hard because they are not understood (people may be seeking to retreat into their comfort zone). You learn by doing, so teams that start trying to change a process before trying it or understanding it ultimately hurt themselves.

The Scrum Master or coach needs to push the team to understand why something seems unhelpful. Early on the root cause of a difficulty may not be the framework itself but something else that merits change.

At this point, a Scrum Master’s or Agile Coach’s job is highly educational. You may also find that your style will need to be slightly more directive than what the role typically calls for. What is most important is to remember that this state should be temporary – and the sooner you get your team to a point of understanding the sooner you can start practicing true agile.

We should follow and understand the rules in place before altering them.

The Switch to Pragmatism 

Once your team reaches the point of understanding, the team is ready to switch to more pragmatic agile. It takes time to understand agile’s design and what each ceremony helps achieve, but once you do you should not limit yourself to that design. A great computer science quote that seems applicable is “the difference between information and intelligence is context”, and agile teams should certainly apply context to how they practice any agile framework. It is just important to note how you got there and remember that your pragmatic agile will follow a different path when you start with a new team. Starting with a new team may share a dogmatic beginning with a different path to what best fits the team.

An Ironic Contradiction

The irony is two-fold in this case.  Implementing truly dogmatic “out of the box” agile can only lead to one place. If you stress adaptability and continuous improvement with the appropriate rigor you will be led to a customized framework with practicalities built for your circumstances. We should not obsess about a battle between dogmatic and pragmatic agile – when executed correctly these contradictions are one and the same. What we need to focus on is our team’s understanding of themselves, what agile means, and how they fit in it. As a leader, you need to be in tune with your team’s development and feed the right message.

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