Agile: Where's the evidence?

A few weeks ago I was presenting at the BCS SIGIST conference – another outing for my popular Objective Agility presentation. Someone in the audience asked: “Where is the evidence that Agile works?”

My response was in two parts. First although it sounds like a reasonable question I’ve come to believe that this is a question that is asked by those who don’t believe in Agile, those who want to stall thing. It is rarely a question aimed at a rational decision.

Second I said: lets turn the question around, Where is the evidence for Waterfall? – as far as I know there is none, although there are plenty of cases of failed projects.

Now this was a pretty flippant answer, I was in show mode and as someone later asked: “Do you really recommend we ridicule people who ask for evidence?”, to which the answer is certainly No.

So let me try and answer the question more seriously.

Lets start with “Agile.” How do we define Agile? Scrum? XP? Where does Agile start and Lean begin, or vice-versa? Or, as I believe, Agile is a form of Lean?

We have a definition problem. Agile is poorly defined. I e-mailed a friend of mine who is undertaking a PhD in Architecture and Agile and asked him: Can you please point me at a literature review?

(Notice, if I was a serious researcher I would closet myself in the library for days or weeks and do the literature review myself. I’m not and I need to earn money so I I didn’t.)

His answer: “that’s an interesting question because a lot of research simply assumes that agile (as a whole) is better, without any evidence for it.”

Michael also pointed out there is a context issue here. Embedded systems? Web development? Finance? Health care?

And how do you define better? Better architecture? Better requirements? Better code quality?

And Better compared to what? Chaos? Good waterfall? Bad waterfall? CMMI level 1? 2? 3? 4? 5?

You see, context.

Despite this one study claimed Scrum resulted in productivity improvements of as much as 600% – Benefield, “Rolling Out Agile in a Large Enterprise”. I’ve even heard Jeff Sutherland verbally claim Scrum can deliver 1000% improvement. To be honest I don’t believe this figures. If they are possible then I think it says something about chaotic state the organisations started in. In these cases my guess is following any process or practice would be an improvement. Standing on one leg every morning would probably have generated a 50% improvement alone.

There is a trap for Agile here. Much traditional work has defined better as: On schedule/time, on budget/cost with the desired features/functionality. But Agile doesn’t accept that as better, Agile negotiates over features/functionality and aims for business value. A report from Cranfield University a few years ago suggested than much traditional IT work failed to truly capture business value because people focused on: time, budget, features.

Then there is a question of bugs. Traditional development has been very accepting of bugs, Agile isn’t.

Maybe asking for evidence about Agile is aiming for too much. Maybe we should look at the practices instead. Here there is some evidence.

Over the years there have been various studies on pair programming which have been contradictory. Since most of these studies have been conducted on students you might well question the reliability.

Test Driven Development is clearer. As I blogged two years ago there is a study from Microsoft Research and North Carolina University which is pretty conclusive on this, TDD leads to vastly fewer bugs.

Keith Braithwaite has also done some great work looking at Cyclomatic Complexity of code and there seems to be a correlation between test coverage and better (i.e. lower) cyclomatic complexity. Keith is very careful point out that correlation does not imply cause although one might hypothesis that test driven development leads to “better” design.

TDD and source code are relatively easy to measure. I’m not really sure how you would determine whether Planning Meetings or User Stories worked. Maybe you might get somewhere with retrospectives. Measure how long a team spends in retrospectives, see if the following iteration delivers more or less as a result.

For their book Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development Coplien and Harrison spent over 10 years assessing teams. This lead to a set of patterns which describe much of Agile software development. This is qualitative, or grounded, research rather than qualitative but is just as value.

At this point I probably should seclude myself in the British Library for a week to research each practice. Maybe I should, or maybe you want to call me an charlatan. Next year, maybe.

If we switch from hard core research to anecdotal evidence and case studies things become easier. As many readers know I’ve been working with teams in Cornwall for over 18 months. On my last visit we held a workshop with the leaders of the companies and software teams. Without naming names some comments stood out here:

  • “The main benefit [of Agile] was time to market… I don’t know how we would have done it without Agile”
  • “Agile has changed the way we run the company”
  • “It is hard to imagine a world without Agile”

That last company is now finding their source code base is shrinking. As they have added more and more automated tests the design has changed and they don’t see the need for vast swaths of code. Is that success? Each line of code is now far more expensive and they have less. (Heaven only knows what it does to function point analysis.)

If you want something a little more grounded there was a recent Forrester report (sorry, I can’t afford the full report) which said: “Agile enables early detection of issues and mid-course corrections because it delivers artefacts much sooner and more often. Finally, Agile improves IT alignment with business goals and customer satisfaction.”

Before this there was a Gartner report in which said: “It’s a fact that agile efforts differ substantially from waterfall projects. It’s also a fact that agile methods provide substantial benefits for appropriate business processes.” (Agile Development: Fact or Fiction, 2006).

But I’m back to that nebulous thing “Agile.”

All in all I can’t present you any clear cut evidence that “Agile works”. I think there is enough evidence to believe that Agile might be a good thing and deserves a look.

What I haven’t done is look for, let alone present, any evidence that Waterfall works.

Frankly I don’t believe Waterfall ever worked. Full stop. Winston Royce who defined “the waterfall” didn’t so why should I? (You have to read to the end of the paper.)

OK, sometimes, to save myself form a boring conversation or to cut to the chase I’m prepared to concede that: Waterfall worked in 1972 on developments using Cobol on OS/360 with an IMS database. But this isn’t 1972, you aren’t working on OS/360 and very few of you are using Cobol with IMS.

(I have seen inside an Z-OS Cobol IMS team more recently and something not unlike waterfall kind of worked, but the company concerned found it expensive, slow and troublesome and wanted them to be “Agile.”)

Even if I could present you with some research that showed Agile, or Waterfall, did work then it is unlikely that the context for that research would meet you context.

(Thus, if you do want to stall the Agile people in your company, first ask “Where is the evidence Agile works?”. When they produce it ask “How does this relate to our company? This is not our technology/market/country/etc. etc.”)

I think it might come down to one question: Is software development a defined process activity or an empirical process activity?

If you believe you can follow a defined process and write down a process to follow and the requirements of the thing you wish to build then waterfall is probably for you. On the other hand, if you believe the requirements, process, technology and a lot else defies definition then Agile is for you.

Finally, the evidence must be in the results. You organisation, your challenges, your context, are unique to you. So my suggestion is: make your own evidence.

Set up two similar teams. Tell one work Waterfall and one to Agile and let them get on with it. Come back every six months and see how they are doing.

Anyone want to give it a try?

And if anyone knows of any research please please please let me know!

(Many thanks to Michael Waterman for a very thoughtful e-mail which filled in some of the missing pieces for this blog.)