Aaarrrggghhh, what say the manifesto?

In 2003, Disney turned the theme park ride Pirates of the Caribbean into an armada of Hollywood cash galleons, the fifth of which is sailing out of theaters. The first PotC (79 on Rotten Tomatoes) had an Agile theme. The pirates reference the “Pirate’s Code,” a pact that regulates a seemingly unregulatable profession: plundering, pillaging, and killing. If you know the Code, you can save your skin by invoking rules like “Parley,” which gets you an audience with the captain of a pirate ship. The Code can also get you left on a desert island holding a pistol with one shot, but I digress.

The key Agile moment is near the end of the movie when Mr. Gibbs, first mate to Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), breaks the Code by returning to the Isla de Muerta to rescue his boss (an act all cPrime employees should emulate). “I thought you were supposed to keep to the code,” says Sparrow.

“We figured they were more actual guidelines,” says Gibbs.

That sums up the tension in Agile. Many practitioners take the Manifesto for Agile Development or Scrum to be the “rules.” In our new ebook, we run into this issue. What’s the difference between a “rule” and a “guideline”? If we scrap or reinterpret Agile “codes,” are we still doing Agile and does that matter?

Jeff McKenna, an Agile coach who worked on the world’s first Scrum team, addressed this problem during an interview. “I go back to the Manifesto when Agile isn’t working,” said Jeff. “Which principle did we forget about? The Manifesto provides guidance.”

Jeff suggests that the Manifesto needs revisiting and reinterpretation. The people who wrote the Manifesto couldn’t have anticipated how technology development would change over time or that other groups – like marketers, designers, and military leaders – would borrow Agile ideas. Hence, capital A “Agile” is lowercase “agile” and evolving. Rules that evolve are guidelines.

The Agile founders wisely left us guidelines, not rules. Consider Principle #6 in the Manifesto: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” If you view the Manifesto as a rulebook, you should ban Slack, email, and conference calls. That would be absurd, but that’s analogous to how some companies do Scrum – dogmatically.

If communication on your Agile teams has broken down, return to the Manifesto. Maybe you’ll recognize that your teams have minimized face-to-face meetings to save time, but doing so has led them to work on the wrong stuff and not learn from mistakes. Instant messengers and emails are good for one-way declarations, not dialogues.

While we’re on the high seas (i.e. at a desk, hitting keys, abusing caffeine), that’s when we’re least likely to remember that Agile codes are “more guidelines.” Under stress, we want the code or “recipe book,” as Jeff calls it, because rules are security blankets for careers. Guidelines are just inherited wisdom.

Own the Manifesto’s meaning for yourself, knowing that it often pays to be an Agile pirate. If you want to know what that’s like, read our ebook, Contested Development.