What is Agile?

Many things get called Agile—especially by people who are selling something. Agile is defined in the Agile Manifesto. The Manifesto makes it clear that Agile isn’t a methodology. It isn’t a specific way of doing software development. It isn’t a framework or a process. In fact, most of the things that are marketed as Agile tend to miss the point of what Agile actually is.

Agile is a set of values and principles.

Much of the discussion around Agile has to do with following different practices, using various methodologies, and even developing with specific tools. For example, while a team may find that having a daily standup is helpful, the standup is only “Agile” to the extent that it is the result of a team following the Agile principles and values.

When you understand this, it is easy to see that Agile is really a collection of beliefs that teams can use for making decisions about how to do the work of developing software. While this means the term Agile gets subjected to a great deal of abuse when people claim that this or that is the way to be Agile, it also means that if you truly understand what Agile is, it is surprisingly flexible. Agile doesn’t make decisions for you. Instead, it gives a foundation for teams to make decisions that result in better software development.

Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto is only 68 words and very simply says that the signers have found that they can develop software better by valuing the items on the left side of the list more than the items on the right side. Below is the Agile Manifesto:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile Principles

In addition to the values of the Manifesto there are 12 principles that support the values. Once again the principles are very general and are less about telling you what to do than they are about giving you the ability to make a good decision in a particular situation.

The principles are:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Agile Decisions

Since Agile is a collection of values and principles, its real worth is in giving people a common foundation for making decisions about the best way to develop software. For example, consider a new project that is in discussions on how to get the requirements from the business owner. The suggested approach is to require that the business owner write down all the requirements and sign off on them before beginning the work. A team that is following Agile would say:

“While that might work, isn’t that inconsistent with our belief that we should value customer collaboration over contract negotiation? And doesn’t it violate our principle that says the developers should be working with the business owners every day? How can we make this decision in a way that is consistent with our values and the principles we follow?”

Or consider a developer who is working on implementing a feature for the business owner. The developer realizes he needs a database to make the feature work. The first idea that comes to mind is to stop work on the feature and build out a robust database layer that will handle the needs of the feature and provide support for other development that will be needed later. If the developer believes in the Agile values and is trying to follow Agile principles, they would think:

“But building out this layer means I will have to delay delivering what the customer can see as valuable software they can use. If I can find a way to build just what is necessary to deliver this feature, it will better align with my principles.”

When you have a team that is following Agile they will be making hundreds of decisions each week in the way described above. That is what it means to be Agile. Making each decision based on the principles and values that the team has decided to follow.

Being Agile

The decision making process matters. You can’t try to short-circuit things by taking decisions made by another team and just blindly doing what they decided to do. Another team may make decisions based on the Agile principles and values and end up with a particular way of doing their work. Simply trying to mimic another team’s actions and practices won’t make your team Agile.

After World War II Melanesian islanders were observed trying to bring cargo planes and their supplies from the sky by mimicking the practices they had seen performed during the war. This included clearing the forest to make a landing strip complete with full size planes made out of straw. They also created structures that mimicked a control tower out of bamboo and had someone sit in it wearing headphones fashioned from coconuts.

It is easy to fall into a similar type of cargo cult mentality when it comes to Agile. The things that are easy to notice in a highly functional Agile team are the practices they are using. But the practices a team uses is the result of following Agile principles and values. It is less important what practice a team happens to be using than why they are using it. In fact, as time goes by, a good Agile team is probably going to change and refine what practices they use.

A team might start with SCRUM and later find that Kanban is a better fit for delivering value to their customers. A team might begin standing up in a daily meeting and later decide it works better for everyone to stay sitting down. Another team might start out using Planning Poker to estimate story size and later do away with story points and simply split stories to where they are somewhere in the same range.

That isn’t to say it is useless to look at practices being used by teams that are performing well, but you can’t go looking for practices to make you Agile. Your principles and values are what will make you Agile. You have to look for practices that support your principles and values. The way you select your practices is what determines whether you are being Agile or not. If a practice is being selected because it looks like a good way to follow Agile principles, it is probably a good place to start. The same practice can work poorly for a team if it is selected for the wrong reason.

So what is Agile?

Agile is a set of values and principles.

How does a team become Agile?

They make their decisions based on Agile values and principles.

The decision-making process is how a team becomes Agile. The values and principles have enough flexibility to allow teams in a wide variety of organizations to develop software in the ways that work best for their particular situation while providing enough direction to help a team continually move toward their full potential.