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The purpose of being Agile

May 18, 2021
An iMac on a desk with the words "do more" on the screen

While many misinterpretations and misunderstandings have spread on the “what” and “how” of Agile, it is perhaps the “why” - the purpose of being Agile - that has become most lost.

The one question I always want to ask prospective clients is, “why do you want to adopt Agile?” Responses vary. “To go faster”, “so that we can be more productive/efficient” and “because our competitors are doing it” are typical. Answers like these already tell me a lot about what any engagement is likely to be like and the coaching work required — and it has little to do with coaching developers to go faster, be more productive, or implementing the same way of working that they do at company x.

To go faster…

The authors of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development chose the word “Agile”, not “speed”. “Going faster” is a handy side-effect of agility, but is not its main purpose. The term “agile” certainly implies an element of speed, but it is really about having the ability to change direction quickly.

Blindly going faster can actually make things worse; think of making a car journey and the implications of going faster, but you don’t realise you are heading in the wrong direction. This then is where transparency and feedback loops inherent in Agile processes are important. Transparency is of the true progress and the state of the work, and the challenges in doing it. Feedback loops are opportunities to carry out inspection of artifacts that give this transparency and carry out adaptations to the metaphorical direction of travel relatively quickly and easily.

So that we can be more productive/efficient…

Usually, what is meant by “more productivity” is a desire to be able to get more with the same (or even less) amount of people and resources. Greater efficiency is a desire to minimize or eliminate waste. In both cases, the mindset here is centred on output, in getting more done at less cost.

It is possible to be highly efficient but still not achieve desired results. The aim with Agile is to increase effectiveness. Agile processes involve communication and collaboration between developers and stakeholders to understand the problems to be solved. It requires taking time to pay attention to and reflect on feedback to validate the direction if travel. Effort is put into reflecting on working practices and experimenting with improvements. All of these things could be regarded as reducing efficiency as people spend less time on tangible, hands-on “productive” work. Unresolvable tensions can arise between those that have adopted an Agile mindset to improve effectiveness, and those that are purely looking for the productivity and efficiency gains in the traditional sense.

Reducing waste by reducing idleness of workers or machinery is a strategy to be more efficient in manufacturing. However, it is unsuitable when developing solutions for complex problems — the domain of work such as software development, sales and marketing that most Agile methods were designed for and thrive in. The 10th Principle of the Agile Manifesto states “Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.” With an Agile mindset, efficiency and waste reduction is achieved through minimising doing things that are of low or no value, and understanding what is valuable and what isn’t as soon as possible.

Because our competitors are doing it…

Some organisations are adopting Agile simply because they see competitors doing it. In these situations, there is rarely a desire to adopt a new mindset and culture, or motivation for true change. A common pattern is the adoption of new nomenclature (Project Managers are renamed as Scrum Masters, Business Analysts as Product Owners etc) and very little actually changes with few benefits of agility actually realised. If anything, the situation may actually become worse as some of the previous structure is lost, yet the discipline for Agile just isn’t there.

So why adopt Agile?

Adopting Agile can actually make things worse if the reasons for doing so are among those outlined above. So what would I say are good reasons to embark on an Agile adoption and the purpose of being Agile?

When an organisation realises it is dealing with complex problems and that the future is unknown. When there is a desire to change to become a learning and improving organisation; learning more about the problem space, customers, and for the organisation to better understand itself. To be open to finding out some uncomfortable truths with the purpose of improving every element of what the organisation does.

It is for these reasons that makes adopting Agile far from easy. But, adopting a true Agile mindset can have a powerful effect. Whether Scrum, Kanban, XP, Lean Startup or any other Agile “flavour”, the provocation is to deliver iteratively and incrementally for frequent feedback and realization of value. This simultaneously challenges the organisation to discover and deal with whatever stops it from doing this, and validate its direction of travel.

Feature photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

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