Undercover agile


I recently heard a conversation about “undercover agile” being a way some teams were dealing with push back from businesses who thought that “Agile” was a dirty word. Do you think that the term “agile” is gathering a stigma? What can we as agile practitioners to help move beyond it? And can undercover agile actually work? It seems like working on a knife edge.

I’ve worked for many years, prior to my current engagement, within a waterfall driven culture. I personally never want to go back. What do you think about taking a position at a company that has “done agile” and been burned by bad implementation and roll out? Curious to see people’s thoughts.


Some of my raw thoughts–mostly questions–on the topic:

  • Is it a stigma or is it fighting a Tayloristic/command and control current that continues to thrive?
  • If it is a stigma, is it directed at agile or at scrum? Do enough even know the difference between the two to understand which they growl at?
  • Is it a misunderstanding of what they think agile is? Maybe they base their definition on what they saw implemented and later failed? Was what was implemented actually agile?

I really don’t have any answers because it all depends on one’s experiences. My own experience begins with what Deming says:

A bad system will be a good person every time.

It’s not the people but the system that’s often the problem. It’s a focus on the quarter and its quarterly earnings for public companies that keeps their focus on the short term at the cost of the long term. Changing a system is hard. Very hard. To change the system requires both a top down and bottoms up approach and too often we focus exclusively on one over the other.

To me, it doesn’t seem to be a stigma, but a fear of the unknown. We agilists like to know where we are now, know our perfect state, take a step, and finally analyze if that brings us closer to where we want to be. Imagine how uncomfortable this approach must be for those that wish to plan out the next year! It’s bound to be met with irrationality, which could look a lot like stigma.

Human beings are not creatures of logic; we are creatures of emotions. And we do not care what’s true. We care how it feels. -Will Smith


Personally i’ve stopped using agile when working with teams. It’s been used and defined in so many different ways that it doesn’t really provide value to use. Instead, I’ll focus the team on specific principles or value props.

e.g. instead of saying “lets be more agile”, it’d be something like, “i noticed ___ has been happening which seems to result in ____. Is it an issue we should pay attention to?”

In conversations with other coaches then agile is useful in the vocabulary as the definition is generally closer among the participants.


Great point, @randyho . Avoiding buzz words is a sign of mastery and is usually the better approach.


I’ve been using similar tactics to introduce small practices within my own team. I am only a dev, but have had great success slowly introducing small techniques like starting 3 amigos chats when picking up stories. Backlog review is now happening more often so that stories reach sprints better formed. We practice “scrumban” (yes, I know it isn’t a thing - it is what the tech lead calls it), but we are getting to a point where the sprints are stable, set and met, and rolling sprints are becoming a thing of the past. Any changes to our practices are small and introduced gently.

Our team lead that was almost burnt out by a super aggressive/dogmatic implementation of an XP and Scrum combination that used the process as a whip instead of the support base it is meant to be.Unfortunately it appears to have left him with some pretty big scars where “scrum” and “agile” is concerned. I’ve certainly talked to others that have had the chaos stick handed to them in the name of agility.

I’ll admit it was the terms “undercover agile” or “agile by stealth” that caught my ear. I almost feel like the only way that our “Agile” team is reaching a point of stability, productivity and sustainability is through something that looks like undercover agile. I was wondering how hard it would be to implement similar practices in an organisation that was, from a top down perspective, not open to “agile”.


The “A word” unfortunately has developed a negative connotation for a multitude of reasons. I actively try to avoid using it during conversation with non-experienced practitioners as much like a Red project status, everyone has a preconceived notion as to what the term means (see what I did there? :slight_smile:) I avoid using the term altogether. It’s a shame that some bad experiences, snake oil salesman, and the “shirts and certs” mentality has eroded the effective utilization of the word.


hence my twitter handle…if the org isn’t ready sometimes the best way is to sneak it in the back door!


I am starting to think that many folks that got into Agile got into it for the power of good. Kinda like following the Scrum Values. Courage, Focus, Commitment, Respect and Openness. I believe the Agile Manifesto came about to improve the life of software developers/technologists. What I fear is that does not translate over to the businesses we may support or even create. For the most part they are to make profit, cut and dry. I am not sure for most business all the other stuff that seems nice is just window dressing. I fear for the most part most companies will ever become “Agile” as a whole because they don’t care about it unless it directly relates to profit and loss. I think it’s kinda why we are on this site Agile Uprising…


I think that is very much the case. I know what drew me in was that I could see that when we were doing something that resembled the “agile” principles, the work the team produced was better, the feeling within the team was great and it felt like you were building something amazing. When we drifted away to try to meet unreasonable and seemingly arbitrary deadlines that ended up not mattering that we suffered from loss of morale, worse code and burnout.

Funnily enough as we have cycled back to a more agile style of development all the aforementioned benefits are coming back and the business is getting better value for money. Remembering that the point is to deliver value for the business helps keep the team centered. Using retros we make improvements and we all grow.

I’ve found the trick for us is for me to say, “I’ve noticed x seems to be a common complaint, why don’t we try…” and then other developers going along with it or me doing it for a while and others eventually joining in.

I think with the business side of things, until the numbers show something. the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) effect apply. I’ve noticed niceties tend to go when things get tight. Unfortunately, this is a very human reaction. Sometimes though it ends up being a case of “cutting your nose off, to spite your face.”

I don’t have any answers to the need for undercover agile even within “agile” teams, but it seems to be the status quo.


Rogue One, come in Rogue One…

My personal, definitely situationally dependent, approach for the last 5 years has morphed me into avoiding the A-word as much as possible.

There are too many unshared understandings of what it means.

And the debates about what Agile is or isn’t impedes my ability to try to do good for and with the teams I serve.

I do my best to model and enact the values, beliefs, and principles without giving them a name.

LIke @randyho i strive to keep things “agonistic” at face value. Only if I am speaking with someone from the Rebel Alliance do is rely on Agile code words…


Two colleagues of mine wrote an article recently about “Subversive Scrum” – it’s related to this thread so here’s the link.


Cool article. I have to say it is nice to know I am not alone. I’d love to see a podcast on undercover agile or scrum by stealth.


Curious to see if anyone who commented on this thread checked out the podcast episode on this topic, and any thoughts/opinions/etc…


Absolutely @JayHorsecow,

In truth I’ve listened to it three times to make sure I gave it the attention I needed. Actually, I went back to Agile Open Forum with Woody Zuill, Tim Ottinger, Amitai Schleier, and Zach Bonaker, and listened to it again. It was worth the time I took.

I was coming from at it from the perspective, that I am in an “agile” org and there was quite a lot of friction with even doing something as simple as a retrospective. I’ve only been able to move things forward by invitation. We are seeing benefit.

I love the emphasis on “upping the good”. If I took away one thing, it was demonstrate don’t talk and UP the good 100%. I enjoyed it. Keep them coming.

I was going to write on the main podcast post, I just haven’t had a chance. My team is reforming and we are in establish a vision for our product and putting in a whole host of hygiene things going forward. So I’ve been busy reading up on things related to what we need to do for the next little bit (and doing some work on our build pipelines). Exciting times.