Real Agile is like “Fight Club” — And it’s not about Rule 1
The narrative of Agile and problems with Agile practice is flawed. We seem to be able to identify these problems but can’t identify solutions other than recommending a new “thing”, which is essentially the same but in different wrapping. Second verse same as the first.
I think this is due to a fundamental misconception about Agile and how it works. In trying to analyse this problem and formulate a description that takes us forward, the movie “Fight Club” kept popping up in my head and my reading stream.
I’ve seen some other yarns briefly mentioning Agile and “Fight Club”, but the treatment is usually superficial. In fact, most are trapped by the very problem I outlined above.
It’s an imperfect analogy but has value nonetheless.
Analysing the core (and popular) plot components of the movie “Fight Club” gives us some insight into what I think is the fundamental problem in Agile practice today: the inverted and incorrect perspective of what agile is and how it relates to the behaviour of teams. Agile practitioners have been calling out issues with Agile practice for a decade or more, but it feels like we’re no closer to solving the problems. There are a few key reasons, but the most fundamental is that we start from the wrong place: our description of Agile. Agile does not influence teams to implement values and practices and thereby become “hyperproductive”. It is people forming good teams that define (for them) what agile means. Until we reframe the objective, we’ll never reach the target.
If you’ve never heard about the movie, check it out on IMDB or this supercut video “Every First Rule of Fight Club Reference. Ever”.
In Fight Club, participants — there are no “members” — are sworn to secrecy. They are not supposed to talk about the club or its activities to anyone, anywhere. The meme about Fight Club is based on the “first rule”.
“The first rule of Fight Club is: ‘You do not talk about Fight Club’”.
In Fight Club, people meet to fight each other with bare-knuckle fists.
That’s it — there is no clubhouse and no after-fight beers. There are no rules (well, not many anyway), no classes, and no professional societies or certifications.
The only direct experience of fighting is when it is actually happening.
But why? The movie initially presents fighting as a pathway to self-discovery and self-reliance. One of the quotes that never gets much airtime is
“How are you going to know anything about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight”
People watch other people fight, but that’s secondary. And a tertiary experience is how they integrate their fighting — and the inevitable injuries — into their daily lives. They reflect and adapt.
The biggest problem with Agile practice today — and this goes back almost a decade at least — is the widely-ranging methods and perspectives that people (mis)apply to their day-to-day practice. There are many schools and cliques. One categorisation scheme that avoids named brands is to split agile practice into two groups: “Fake” Agile and “Real” Agile.
But “Real” Agile, by my definition, is probably not what you call “Real”.
Fake agile is when people and teams follow defined "Agile " processes (such as Scrum) — or adopt sub-elements such as Standups — without actually doing anything that can be recognised within the Agile principles and values. These processes might be called “Agile Frameworks”, “Agile Methodologies”, or something similar.
Continuing the fighting/boxing analogy, “Fake” Agile is like the regulated boxing industry. There are rules and gradings and coaches and managers. Sitting over this is governance (Boxing Commissions) and professional associations. Every fighter might have his or her personal style, but all the action is planned, managed and scheduled. For juniors, there are clubs and junior leagues and lots of rules.
Basically, you’re either in that structure and boxing or you’re not.
I call this type of Agile “Performative” because it is driven by a formalised definition of the behaviours and practices to be performed — it is normative, and so we end up with “right” and “wrong” ways of doing things.
Anyway, let’s go no further in this yarn with this analogy or this type of agile. Although the bulk of agile today appears to be “Performative”, it’s not particularly interesting.
What is interesting is “Real” Agile.
Real agile is much harder to define because — like “Fight Club” — you can only truly experience it when you are doing it.
People who aren’t doing it might be intrigued or repelled by the idea, but it’s just their idea — their perception or even imagination of what it’s like.
The “Fight Club” analogy works because our whole articulation of Agile is “arse about face”.
We talk and write endlessly about things like “implementing and applying Agile principles and values reflection, and continuous improvement” or that “emphasizes collaboration, continuous improvement, and delivering value to the customer”.
The reality is that it’s not the Agile narrative that facilitates people working and thinking naturally together. It’s people who think and work naturally together that describe — by their actions alone — what agile is.
But it’s agile for that particular team at that particular time on that particular problem. It might be different the next day or the next project. It will be different in the next team.
Real Agile Folks Don’t Talk about Agile
Folks doing Real Agile don’t talk much about it from a process perspective. They only discuss it when reflecting on what could be done better or what positive behaviour could be amplified or reinforced. Then they go do it.
The Agile Manifesto is such a great document — and the “Magnificent Seventeen” an awesome bunch of guys — because they were able to go from observing and participating in such teams and evolving better practices to such a simple and elegant formulation of the values and principles.
But their mistake was that — once formulated — they broke the first rule of “Fight Club” and talked about it. Maybe “mistake” is harsh — what else would they do?
But from that point, people outside the direct experience of what went into the Agile Manifesto took it as a recipe book.
It’s been parsed and analysed and codified, and now folks are studying and collecting “soft skills” like baseball cards: trust, collaboration, continuous improvement, and it goes on.
In Fight Club, the members find a sense of belonging and purpose through shared experiences.
Similarly, teams that have or develop a deep understanding of how to work together effectively become hyper-productive and exhibit the behaviours that we can recognise as “Agile”.
The Bottom Line
So, this is why Agile and Fight Club are the same. Neither of them exists in any other way than the people who participate actually doing the thing they need to do.
You cannot describe the “members” of Fight Club in terms of the club’s attributes — Fight Club only exists when people come together in a basement or alley to do what they do.
In exactly the same way, you can’t describe a team in terms of the attributes of the Agile Manifesto or some framework (e.g. Scrum). It’s exactly the opposite. It’s the teams who are working together and solving problems “in the moment” who describe agile through their actions.
Whenever you try to do it the other way — the way most agile is done today — you take a wrong turn and end up “Fake”.
The only thing I’ll say is that being good at “Fake” Agile isn’t the worst place to be for a team. But you need to settle down to get as much benefit as possible from what are essentially Predictive (Plan-based) projects with people who don’t yell and hang nice things on the wall.