What is Agile, or “What’s in a Name?”

Recently I posed a question on LinkedIn – 

Could anyone explain what Agile is, without explaining what it isn’t?

I asked this for a few reasons, primary being that there didn’t seem to be any real consensus on it.

For some it’s the Agile Manifesto and restricted to software development. Others claim it transcends software and is applicable to all business functions (Agile PM, Agile HR, Agile Marketing, Agile Hairdressing, Agile Dog Walking, etc.). Agile has in some ways become the ‘go to’ term for anything ‘good’ or ‘desirable’. But it’s also become nebulous in some ways. If I like it the process, then it’s Agile (yay, good), and if I don’t, then it’s not Agile (boo, bad). This seems to be regardless of whether the process itself works or not. 

It’s also retroactive. Henry Ford was practicing or being ‘Agile’ when he created the assembly line, as was Thomas Edison when he invented the light bulb. And Agile is the goal. Organizations (and practitioners) all want to be ‘Agile’. 

But what is it?

How do you explain it to an executive or team  that’s curious and wondering if ‘adopting Agile’ is the right direction? What does it mean for an organization, or its leaders? Or a team? 

What has to change? Who has to change? (always a concern for leaders). Change to what?

The rules were simple:

  1.  No “Agile is an alternative to Waterfall” or similar.
    • This focuses on what Agile isn’t. If Agile is a response or alternative to Waterfall, then doesn’t that mean improving Waterfall obviates the need for Agile?
  2.  No “Agile is a mindset”. 
    • This is too easy and a cop-out. You might as well say Agile is ‘positive thinking’, or ‘being resilient’ – two more ‘nothing’ phrases.
  3.  If you referred to Agile ‘methods, tools, or techniques’, you had to explain what those were as well.
    • Too often I see explanations that say ‘Agile is set of processes for developing software, or making decisions’. Okay, but that still doesn’t tell me what it is, what needs to be implemented, or why Agile is ‘better’. 

So what did we get? Well, for starters it turned out to be more difficult than I (and I think others) thought it would be, and to say the responses were varied would be an understatement. In some cases responses directly contradicted other responses. All leading to the inevitable conclusion that – no one really knows. 

It seems everyone has a view or opinion about what Agile is, or isn’t, and like fingerprints or snowflakes, no two are alike. 

A small sampling of the (paraphrased) responses – 

  • It’s a software development approach per the Agile Manifesto
  • It’s a problem solving approach
  • It’s a set of rules or decision-making approach to address complex or chaotic situations
  • It’s an approach to team enablement
  • It’s an approach to enable quicker response time
  • It’s doing work iteratively
  • It’s an adjective

There were some humorous responses as well. One suggested I had actually posed a riddle. Another suggested that Agile is now an industrial complex (maybe not wrong there), and another that it’s really a ‘trigger word’.

As an example of the contrary views on this, one response was that Agile was about creating well-functioning teams. When pressed, it was agreed that if this indeed was the case, then a phased-approached project could in fact be Agile, as long as the phased-approach was A) the one best suited for the project type, and B) allowed for well functioning teams. At the same time another response suggested Agile was iterative, and if you weren’t delivering incrementally, then you weren’t using Agile practices. 

Unfortunately, the idea/challenge of defining what Agile is became even more problematic shortly after I posed my question. Under normal circumstances one might think that going back to the source material (the Agile Manifesto) would help solve or at least clarify things. As it turned out, while my question was being discussed there was another discussion going on over whether or not SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) was in fact “Agile”. Sadly, when it was suggested by someone that all seventeen of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto had all, individually, stated that SAFe was in fact not Agile, many decided that they (the creators of the concept of Agile) were not the final arbiters of what is or isn’t Agile. 

Honestly, I’m still pondering how that works.

Regardless, in the face of this disregard for the opinions of the Manifesto’s authors, I decided to press on and take a deeper look for myself. The Manifesto itself is actually pretty short – 4 Values, 12 Principles, and 1 page (History) about how they got there (so it’s not like the research was hard). 

After reading the History page I thought I was getting somewhere – it’s pretty clear that the original group gathered to discuss ways to use ‘light weight methods’, to ‘deliver good products’, and wanted to actaully treat people as important and not just say they were. The only process/methods described were ones already in use (Scrum, DSDM, XP, Crystal, etc.). Nothing new or prescriptive at all.

The ‘self-organizing teams’, the ‘frequent delivery’, the ‘welcoming of change’ seem more like simply mechanisms the authors thought would help facilitate this than ‘requirements’ (that’s why it’s “we value” and not “we require”). They even go so far as to say they aren’t anti-plan or anti-methodology. They just wanted to find ways to remove, as they called it, the “Dilbertesque” approach to work. Oh, and it was written by 17 software development professionals, about software development methods, to develop software better. So do with that what you will. 

Alas, even this view was challenged and it was suggested that this described Agile 20 years ago, but it’s evolved since then. And maybe that’s true. Towards this end we’re now seeing suggested updated versions of Agile – Agile 2.0, Modern Agile, Amplio, etc. 

Reading the responses (both to my question and the SAFe discussion) I was often reminded of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment during the 1964 obscenity trial –

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,…”

So after all this where did I end up? In the end I’ve come to the conclusion that Agile is an intent. It’s not a thing, not a set of practices, not a method or methodology, not a ‘mindset’, not responding to change faster, not delivering incrementally. It’s not Agile vs agile vs agility. The word Agile seems to simply be the agreed upon alternative to ‘light’ or ‘light weight’ and really appears to have little significance. It’s not anti-waterfall, or anti-plan, or anti-documentation. The only thing it’s “anti-” towards is cumbersome, pointless, painful bureaucracy.

It’s simply delivering a good product, with a light touch (and a plan), and treating people well. 

Now I realize that this isn’t good news for those selling Agile products, toys, t-shirts, gift certificates, etc. But there it is. 


Of course, I may be wrong. 

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