My first exposure to Agile was in the early 2000’s, when a friend leant me the Schwaber and Beedle Scrum book.  It kept talking about mysterious  “emergent properties”, which were apparently good things that would inevitably happen when you followed the process.  But it never really explained why those properties would emerge and, to my mind, it never gave satisfactory evidence that they really would emerge.

That was my first taste of agile as a “belief-based movement”.  I have no problem with the book itself. As I explain below, its approach is ideal for beginners. However, in asking readers to take certain things on faith it set a dangerous precendent.  I vividly remember a presentation, again on Scrum, which I paid to attend some years later.  The audience was asked to accept some truly remarkable claims based only on the word of the presenter. It felt like something which no professional event should ever resemble: the recruiting session of a strange religious cult.  The kind where the charismatic speaker sways all listeners with his eloquence and fervour… then gets arrested three years later for dodgy behaviour.

Agile as a belief system

At its worst and most cult-like extremes, belief-based agile can be dismissed out-of-hand, and rightly so.  But at the milder end of the scale, such as the Schwaber-Beedle book, it serves a valid purpose.  It presents a clear and compelling introduction to agile, which is great for people who have never heard about it before.  It worked for me.  Our team tried what we read in the book, and we loved it. It was great to have such an introduction to agile.  Without that simplicity, we might never have got started.

But then we started to struggle.  Our projects didn’t seem to fit the book.  We had constraints which the book didn’t even mention.  We began to suspect Scrum was good for other people but not quite right for us.

But what bothered me more was that I still didn’t understand it.  What the heck are these so-called emergent properties anyway? And how do you make one?

Agile as (social) science

It wasn’t until I read Alistair Cockburn’s book Crystal Clear that things started to make sense.  The book is not about Scrum; it’s about Alistair’s rather different formulation of agile.  And yet, it was only by reading Crystal Clear that I actually understood Scrum.  Although it uses different terminology, Crystal Clear filled in the missing pieces and answered my questions about Scrum’s “emergent properties”.

But Crystal Clear did three things which even more important:

  1. It showed that agile can be based on evidence and science.  I’m not talking here about the popular misconception of science, in which we have blind faith in white-coated experts, but about real  science where even the experts question their own judgement and follow the evidence where ever it may lead.  Crystal Clear grew out of Alistair’s PhD research (which in turn grew from his process work at IBM and elsewhere). Based on observations of real-world projects, Alistair formed hypotheses about the factors that led to success in software development.  Then he painfully discarded one hypothesis after another as the evidence demanded.  He eventually arrived at the family of methodologies known as Crystal, of which Crystal Clear is the version applicable to small teams.  (Alistair’s development of Crystal preceded the founding of the agile movement.  He was later one of the 17 co-creators of the Agile Manifesto.)
  2. It showed that agile should be flexible, to suit the nature of humans.  It is impossible to read Crystal and not be struck by how human-friendly it is;  how it allows and requires variation to suit your circumstances; and how one-size-fits-all rules are the very antithesis of agile.
  3. It explained that simple belief-based formulations of agile are the starting point, not the destination.  The common rigid, belief-based formulation of agile is an ideal learning tool, but it’s only the starting point on the learning journey, not the end.


Today, I happily use Scrum – informed by and infused with a healthy dose of Crystal Clear.  If you are not familiar with Crystal Clear and Alistair’s work in general, you owe it to yourself and your project to learn.