Returning to the Heart of Agile - a Talk by Alistair Cockburn

Posted by Steve Green on 14 June 2016.

I confess to being somewhat jaded and sceptical when I hear yet another evangelist telling us how Agile development is the one true path to software perfection, that "quality is baked into the process" and how you absolutely must follow the process to the letter even when your instincts tell you otherwise.

So I wasn't entirely enthused by the prospect of Alistair Cockburn's talk at the AdventuresWithAgile Meetup on 14 June 2016. Alistair is not merely an Agile evangelist but was one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto and the Declaration of Interdependence. He doesn't just drink the Agile Kool-Aid, he makes and sells it for a living. This could be a grim 90 minutes.

I could not have been more wrong

Alistair is a highly-engaging speaker and it turns out he shares my dismay at what Agile development has become in the last decade, hence the topic of his talk, "Returning to the Heart of Agile".

As people have applied Agile principles blindly without applying intelligence, practices have become bloated, inefficient and self-defeating. Worse still, they have turned into mantras that are recited verbatim without consideration of the context or the original principles.

Agile consultants

There was a special mention for those Agile consultants who have taken the simple set of principles and extrapolated them into huge process documents that then require lengthy and expensive training courses to understand and implement. It's all a long way from what the authors of the Agile Manifesto envisioned.

Credibility by example

I was particularly impressed by Alistair's promise never to answer a question without providing  a real-world example to support it, which gave a great deal of credibility to his answers. There was no hand-wavy "you have to trust the process" nonsense and I can only recall one occasion when he was not able to provide an example - I may be wrong but I think he also declined to provide an answer.

Lightbulb moments

Much of his talk simply reinforced my own beliefs but there were a few lightbulb moments such as his description of the Shu Ha Ri Kokoro progression of learning and complexity, which explains how practitioners (of perhaps any discipline) at first tend to adopt increasingly complex methods, but as they approach mastery of their subject they tend to seek simplicity. I found this counter-intuitive at first but now see examples everywhere.

Find out more

There is a video of Alistair's talk at - it's 90 minutes but it's well worth taking the time. There's also a short paper at