Formal Versus Agile? You’ve Got It All Wrong!

As I interpret it, the agile versus formal debate is generally treated as an either or question. For instance, in any given software development situation there may be an assessment that it would have worked better if only an agile approach was used or for a project like this, you must use a formal approach. Only rarely does there seem to be an advocate that suggests integrating aspects of both approaches.

Inevitably, this has resulted in religious arguments about which approach is better, and religious arguments are usually from an absolutist’s perspective.

A funny thing happened on the way to resolving this issue; some folks with poor practices attempt to partake of any legitimacy that the agile approach offers by reinterpreting their practices as agile. Their approach is to elevate any poor practice they have as really being agile. Equally confused, other folks have taken genuine successes from the agile approach and reinterpreted them as luck, hacking, or some other variant of happenstance. Their approach is to reduce any agile success to at best the results of wishful thinking.

What do these two different groups of people, the elevationists and the reductionists, have in common? Both of these groups have a perspective that only allows for two levels of software development: lets call them conventional and non-conventional.

  • Conventional: formal or heavy approaches, e.g. Rational Unified Process (RUP), CMM, etc.
  • Non-Conventional: anything other than conventional.

My argument is that one significant limitation to resolving this issue is the two-level model, and that by reinterpreting the evidence using a three- (or more) level model, a path towards resolution becomes visible.

In addition, this re-interpretation can be shown to be an instance of a concept identified by Ken Wilber and named the ¿pre/trans fallacy¿. While this think piece is about software development processes, the subject area that the pre/trans fallacy originally referred to is much more universal and significant, that of human consciousness (e.g. Ken Wilber Online: Introduction to Volume 1 of The Collected Works). The pre/trans fallacy is part of a larger model called the Integral Model [need citation].


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