In this series, I shall be examining the twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto, to tell you why they exist, for they did not appear out of thin air and are therefore in response to some need that we had or have. In the process, I shall also tell you why most of these principles are overly idealistic in their expression and what I think they really ought to say. I am not trying to tell anybody what is right or wrong, this is not a morality debate. I have a great deal of admiration for the ideals that are expressed in the twelve principles (or most of them anyway) it is just that they are misstated and are therefore widely misunderstood.
Principle #1 – Our highest priority
Before I deal with the first principle I should declare that I don’t see any of the twelve tenets in the Agile Manifesto as principles at all. A principle is something that can be held up as true and not merely honest. A statement like ‘it is impossible to gauge the worth of an idea until you have seen the initiatives that flow from it’, is true. A statement like ‘we need to collect ideas from our colleagues because ideas are the most valuable currency of our business’, is only honest. The latter statement simply reflects an honestly held view but you only have to point to a foolish idea or one that is impossible to implement to start to have your doubts. So, for the last time, there is nothing wrong with Honesty, it is a very admirable quality in people, I simply find that having read the manifesto I cannot accept a word of it as True.
Principle #1 states that “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software”. Okay, so nobody believes that right? You shouldn’t, because although it might be expressed as a principle, it is in fact a rule and as a rule it will be broken recklessly everywhere. I cannot imagine for one second that in the majority of Agile workplaces people are walking about believing that their HIGHEST priority is someone else’s satisfaction. People are far more concerned about their pay checks, their kids, whether they have a seat by the window and thousands of more mundane and human things than customer satisfaction through early delivery of blah, blah, blah.
It is clear that the founding fathers of the Agile Manifesto did not understand the simple difference between Truth and Honesty. You can honestly believe something, but you should not go around trying to persuade others that your honestly held beliefs are true. Truth is something that you will know as soon as you are told it. Gravity is True, regardless of whether an equation that describes it is accurate or not.
If the first principle is not True then how can it have derived so much support from so many smart people over all these years? The answer, I believe, is that it has its basis in truth and so for most people it is true enough. True enough is not good enough for everybody though and if you do not have the experience and knowledge to supplement the words of the manifesto then those words are not as useful as they should be.
Let us unravel how we might express the first principle of the manifesto, not as an aspiration but as something that is fundamentally true. The first thing to say is that one Truth reinforces another and the first Truth that we must rely on is that all of the principles by which we live in the workplace are in some way self-serving . If they were not self-serving then they would not long survive. Therefore, when we read a statement like the first manifesto principle, that defines us as being naturally altruistic for no good reason, we should become immediately suspicious that this is not in fact a principle, it is something else. Okay, it is nice to satisfy the customer, but what if in satisfying the customer you ended up being unprofitable and so ended up bankrupt? It makes no sense for this to be a principle, it doesn’t survive five minutes of scrutiny.
If we forget about describing ourselves as nice,