Agile in 60 Seconds

The term Agile is used in many ways, but at the very least it covers different sets of values, patterns, principles and methods to cope with working in environments of frequent change, fragmented knowledge and turbulence – hence the need for quick adaptation, agility. We consider Agile as a subset of the greater umbrella often referred to as Lean Thinking, coming from Japanese management principles, most notably from Toyota, but really originating with W. Edwards Deming and his work during and after the Second World War.

In 2001 the Agile Manifesto was written. It is deliberately formulated with software development in mind, so we only use it in a limited fashion. However it has true value and here it is:

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.

We will follow the flow of this in our explanation, but first a quote from one of signatories of the manifesto

… what does it mean to be agile? I mean, my definition is that you accept input from reality, and you respond to it.            Kent Beck

Here then is our understanding of the concept Agile in its broader meaning:

  • The ever-changing circumstances and fragmented knowledge of daily lives are faced and realized. Therefore, operating in this complex environment is a constant struggle to observe the world, trying to makes sense of the inputs, deciding what to do next and then acting decisively.
  • It follows that work is best done in tight iterations, reviewing results and ways of working after each iteration. Life becomes a constant learning, a process of constant improvement.
  • In order to have clear direction there must a be a constant focus on serving the customer or the beneficiary of our efforts. Close cooperation is called for.
  • In order to make sense of all the inputs, including those of the results of work, there is a call for multiple perspectives to uncover the true meaning as good and as fast as possible. This calls for the use of teamwork and true involvement and engagement of the people working.
  • It follows, that the traditional plan-driven approach to work from Taylorism in the industrial age is vulnerable to failure in situations with a high content of complexity. Plans will have to be changed frequently as new aspects are uncovered.
  • It follows furthermore, that the traditional top-down, order-obey principle from Taylorism is likely to fail as true engagement from people is almost prohibited.
  • It finally follows, that the necessary Agile way to lead people, is to allow their intrinsic motivation to blossom. That is, they want to: See a greater purpose of what they are doing, have a certain amount of autonomy over their own work and lives and be allowed to master areas of competence. This requires deep respect and trust between the parties involved.
  • In the end, being Agile requires that everybody is willing to give up on self-serving and self-promoting attitudes and be willing to serve the greater good of the customer, the team and the organization. A balance is constantly navigated between individual and communal needs, neither can be forgotten. 
  • This is hard work and to some extent counter intuitive in our present culture; but it creates progress, value to all and fulfillment for the individual.

Our colleague from Crisp in Stockholm has made a nice graphic illustrating much the same:

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