Agile Owes More to Aristotle than the Renaissance

Todd Hoff's picture

There's an interesting historical parallel between Agile software development, traditional large organizational software development and Aristotle and the new Renaissance politics of Machiavelli. Of course the part of Agile development is played by the great Greek genius Aristotle and the part of the evil giant organization development group is played by Machiavelli. Could it be any other way?

Machiavelli's The Prince, the longest please hire me resume ever, revolutionized politics by turning the long accepted ideas of Aristotle into compost. Aristotle thought the state was founded on friendship and trust. To have a state you need a bond. That's how a gang becomes cohesive and turns into a team. That's how soldiers stand side by side together in battle against constant challenge and danger. And the basis of that bond, the basis for the state, must start with friendship and trust. The state can never be sustained by fear. The state succeeds based on personal morality.

Sound like Agile now? You thought I was just crazy when I started out, didn't you?

In a sure made for TV thriller, Machiavelli flat out contradicts Aristotle. This was a big deal in big M's time, for Aristotle was simply known as The Philosopher, and was assumed right about pretty much everything. It took some big ones to disagree with Aristotle.

Machiavelli argues the basis of the state is fear of the Prince and the system of coercion the Prince creates to ensure the continuance of power. A Prince says if you do X here's the punishment or if you don't do Y here's the punishment. There's no weak minded friendship or trust or need for a unifying bond in big M's world. The Prince to stay in power must exercise power. What holds a people together is fear, fear of the Prince.

Does this sound something like your usual software development group? Orders radiate down from the top and you are expected to follow orders under pain of death march.

Aristotle's notion of political science is empirical (again, like Agile). A study of all the Greek city states was performed with the goal of finding what worked in all those cases so an ideal of how a perfect state is to be run could be established. In my rather strained analogy I'll say this is something like Scrum. An ideal algorithm of how to run a project rather than an exact prescription of every detail.

Machiavelli is also empirical in nature, but he is more hard cruel world based. He wants to stay flexible because what works in one situation wont work in another. This sounds a bit Agilish, but it's not. What matters to big M is establishing and maintaining order. The Prince must do whatever it takes to stay a Prince so you can't be wedded to any quaint notion of an ideal. Personal morality is quite separate from a Prince's morality. The Prince must be free to act in anyway necessary while people must act in strict accordance with the Prince's wishes or there is punishment. This is very similar to the notion that a corporation can justify actions by appealing to a fiduciary responsibility that an individual could never get away with.

Who said history wasn't relevant to today? If you look irrationally hard we can see the same struggles faced today writ large in our past.