What is Agile? And why is it still so popular?

What is Agile? And why is it still so popular?

There are two aspects to Agile. The first is that everything we know to be Agile now, basically originated in the 1990s. That decade was a hotbed of Agile invention: from Extreme Programming to Scrum, from feature-driven development to the processes innovated by Tom Gilb and also Alistair Cockburn’s Crystal,

These Agile methodologies were essentially an answer to a natural challenge in the world of software engineering and software product development. Faced with inherent complexity and a raft of unknowns – the unknown of the unknown – developers sought solutions that worked.

This quest led to the realisation that shorter development cycles, more frequent inspections and adaptations, more collaboration with the customer, and an unwavering focus on good engineering practices and technical excellence were the key to successful software development.

Born out of necessity

In essence, Agile was born out of necessity. What’s interesting is that even though Agile has its roots deeply embedded in software engineering, ‘The Agile Manifesto’ of 2001 reveals an underlying principle that transcends software engineering alone.

But let’s go back to February 2001. The developers who had pioneered these processes got together and recognised that – despite their varied working methods – they shared a successful track record that outpaced the industry average. The question then was, what did they have in common?

The Agile Manifesto

Fast forward to a snowboarding ski resort in Utah where these pioneers gathered. Over one transformative weekend, they created The Agile Manifesto.

While the manifesto was steeped in software and the website to this day mentions software, I’d argue that we can now substitute ‘software’ with ‘product’. Why? Because Agile has expanded beyond software engineering. At its core it is about individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It’s about how people work together, how they help each other – the human elements are more important than processes and tools.

A working product over documentation

Agile isn’t about comprehensive documentation; it’s about working products. You can document anything, but the real challenge is making it work; implementing it successfully. A working product becomes the only real, honest measure of progress.

Then, of course, there is customer collaboration over contract negotiation. The Agile mindset urges us to embrace change rather than minimise variation.

When a client realises they want something different, we should celebrate the fact that they have learnt something new that has changed their mind. We should sit together, collaborate, and figure out what makes the most sense. This approach leads to responding to change over following a plan, which is the fourth value of The Agile Manifesto.

So pretty much everything we call Agile these days was born in the 1990s. Globalisation also happened in the 1990s. Suddenly, you could get a product cheaper from a different country and as more and more items became standard commodities, people realised that how we work has become more important than simply doing the work.

A mindset, not just a methodology

The second aspect of Agile that resonates with me is the mindset. And that’s what many organisations struggle with, embracing the mindset. Truly embracing Agile means viewing Agile as a verb rather than a noun, embodying the principle of being Agile. This means you think differently and you behave differently.

In every training, I witness many people wrestling with an inner resistance on the first day. It’s as if their minds are unwilling to fully open up to the Agile way of thinking. But then, at some point, it just clicks. They open up and see their work through a different lens. The challenge then becomes how to make this mindset stick, to make it part of their behaviour. This, for me, is the Agile mindset: when you don’t have to think about it anymore, you do things automatically.

If we elevate this mindset to an organisational level, it becomes the organisational culture. Therefore, to make your organisation more Agile, you must transform the underlying culture, which is an enormous challenge.

So, why has Agile become so popular?

Sure, it’s been around for roughly 30 years, but Agile has matured. Here and there, things have changed, but the overall core values of Agile as expressed in the Agile Manifesto has remained basically unchanged. In those 30 years, so many other methodologies have appeared and then disappeared. But not Agile. That’s because Agile is more than just a process guide or a handbook. Again, it is a mindset that guides you in certain situations. Instead of telling you how to do something or how to behave in certain situations, Agile cultivates a mental attitude.

The Agile mindset does more than simply adjust how you approach projects; it reshapes how you view decisions and obstacles. It’s challenging, but for organisations who truly embrace it, it can result in a level of adaptability, efficiency and customer satisfaction that traditional approaches can only dream of.

About Effective Agile

Ralph Jocham is a Change Agent in Scrum // Agile // Coaching // Evidence Based Management and also a Professional Scrum Trainer based in Europe.

As one of the first Professional Scrum Trainers in the world, Ralph has worked directly with cocreator of #scrum, Ken Schwaber, and has played an integral part in the course development of the #PSPO (Professional Scrum Product Owner) as well as the delivery of all #scrum.org certified courses.

If you’re looking to invest in training that transforms and empowers teams to successfully adopt #scrum or #agile, and create high-performance #productdevelopment environments leveraging the agile values and principles, visit https://effectiveagile.com/agile-scrum-trainings/

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