There Is No Agile

“Before I learned martial arts, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick. When I studied martial arts, a punch was no longer just a punch and a kick was no longer just a kick. Now I understand martial arts, and a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”

Most of you who read my blog probably know that I hold the rank of Master (black belt 5th dan in karate). Surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities between Agile projects and martial arts!

Most of all, when I think of Agile these days, I think of the words of Bruce Lee. For those of you who don’t know Bruce Lee or only know him as a film star of the 1970’s may not know that he was also one of the technically great martial artists of the 20th Century. He had a powerful modernising influence on martial arts which at the time was heavily steeped in tradition and folklore. Does that sound familiar???

What I’ve learned over the last 7 agile years

If I can paraphrase Bruce:

“Before I learned Agile Project Management, a project was just a project and software development was just software development. When I studied Agile, a project was no longer just a project and software development was no longer just software development. Now I understand Agile, and a project is just a project and software development is just software development.”

What I’ve learned over my last 7 “agile” years is that no agile projects are ever the same. No two environments are the same and no two teams are the same. What works for one team may not work for another team. What works for one team on one project may not work for the same team on the next project.

I have learned that just because you are doing Scrum does not mean you are doing agile or good project management! It is entirely possible to do non-agile Scrum!!! Just because you have a kanban board does not mean you are lean or agile. It just means you have a kanban board.

Bruce felt that martial arts should be fluid and reactive to the continual sea of change that is combat. He worked tirelessly to eliminate the fat from martial arts to reveal the truth hidden within. Bruce saw martial arts as a continual. never-ending quest for perfection that can never be achieved – but the journey makes it all worth while!

So it is with software development. We (should) seek to continually improve and stimulate and react to change. We should cut the fat from our practices and techniques to reveal the truth of the simplest, most direct solution to our problems. This idea applies to waterfall, RUP, Scrum, DSDM or any other project management method. If you are not continually improving and adapting to change, you are not doing Agile!

There is no single right way to manage a project (and arguably there are only wrong ways). Despite Bruce’s advocation of fluid, adaptive martial arts, he did feel that there was great value in learning set techniques and moves from different martial arts.

“Jeet Kune Do [Bruce’s martial art] favors formlessness so that it can assume all forms”

It is worth learning about the tools and techniques of Scrum, DSDM, Prince 2, etc and practising those skills in order that they can intuitively used at a moment’s notice in a project. Bruce would have felt it wrong to limit himself to just studying Karate or Wing Chun and so I have learned that it is wrong to limit yourself to following only one project management discipline. Scrum cannot solve all of your problems. DSDM cannot solve all of your problems. The solution to problems lies in mastery of multiple forms and the fluid, unprejudiced application of those forms.

So, in my current analysis, there is no real, single Agile approach. There is only practical project management drawing fluidly in an ever-changing manner from a wide variety of techniques and disciplines.

Nick is the CEO of McKenna Consultants Ltd, based in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, UK. McKenna Consultants are a professional team of computer programmers delivering the highest quality software specialising in a broad range of technologies for windows, web-based and mobile applications, including apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Mobile. 

McKenna Consultants also deliver Agile coaching, consultancy and training to organisations of all sizes.

For more information on the services that Nick and McKenna Consultants provide, please visit: