Agile is Having an Identity Crisis

Agile is Having an Identity Crisis

Many of you are investing to "be more Agile". Some of you hate the mere mention of the word "Agile". And still, others are wondering just what all the fuss is about. Some of you think that agility is key to 21st-century survival, and still others think agile is dead. The good news is that you all may be right depending on your context. The bad news is we're all confused. Yes, indeed - "Agile" is having an identity crisis.


Throughout my journey of coaching organizations over the past 12 years, I've seen two seemingly conflicting patterns related to "Agile", which illustrate the confusion. These patterns don't seem to correlate to organization age, size or industry, nor do they correlate to the leader's experience, intelligence or record of success. However, analyzing these two will help us break down our definition problem.

Pattern 1: the Alphas. Alphas are organizations containing smart, successful leadership that claim they are "big-A" Agile, but don't decentralize much control, aren't supportive of innovation, promote delivery-at-all-costs, and lack focus on customer empathy.

Pattern 2: the Betas. Betas are organizations whose smart, successful leadership claims they are not "big A" Agile, yet they decentralize control, encourage innovation, promote learning alongside delivery, and strive for customer empathy.

Are Alphas actually Agile? Are Betas really not Agile? Many of you at first glance may say the exact opposite that Alphas are not Agile and Betas definitely are. But why do these smart, successful leaders self-assess in this way? The answer lies in the evolving definition of the word "Agile".

In the beginning

The start of all this agile-mania was the creation of the Agile Manifesto. The folks in Snowbird were after a better, more agile way of developing software. Although commonly referred to as the "Agile Manifesto", they were after something more specific and relevant to their needs - a "Manifesto for Agile Software Development." To that end, they created 4 Values and 12 principles which were highly valuable to the software development community in 2001 and made a positive impact which is still felt today.

Then, life happened

But then, time kept on going. The internet has become more ubiquitous. Then smartphones, then tablets, then watches. Now everywhere we go is WiFi enabled - even our transportation along the way keeps us connected. Software companies certainly had to adapt first, but it didn't stop there. All businesses are adapting. Regardless of industry - every retail, hospitality, transportation, manufacturing, financial, services, energy, etc. company is changing parts of their business model to become more transparent, collaborative, decentralized, empathetic and responsive to remain competitive.

Agile for software development became Scrum, XP, and Lean. Then those evolved to incorporate CI, CD, DevOps, TDD, FDD, BDD, etc. In other cases, Agile became Lean thinking, Lean development, and Kanban. In parallel, product development and discovery approaches like Design Thinking moved forward. Business and Holistic Agility sprung up with no software ties at all. Some viewed these as different paths outside of Agile, others viewed them as different flavors of the same Agile path. Throughout all of this, the confusion over the capital A "Agile" grabbed hold.

Back to agile

The word "agile" is an adjective. Adjectives describe nouns. If you want your noun (department, organization) to exhibit these adjectives (transparent, collaborative, decentralized, empathetic and responsive), then you are seeking agility - the desire to be agile. You are doing this not for Agile's sake, but rather, you must do this in order to remain competitive in the modern landscape where change is no longer constant it's accelerating. So, let's revisit our Alphas and Betas.

Alpha organizations see value in agility and want to get there. They have embraced agility as defined by the manifesto and have improved their delivery. However, their narrow definition is preventing them from achieving the full benefits of agility. They may not change their definition of "Agile" - and would be technically right for doing so. However, their "Agile" effectiveness will likely be limited due to the lack of discovery & innovation principles as well as culture & thinking shifts - where significant gains are made. After "being Agile", they may implement Transparency, CI/CD, Collaboration, DevOps, Decentralized control, Design Thinking, etc. as separate initiatives based on their "big A" definition.

Beta organizations may continue to loathe the word "Agile" - thinking that it doesn't contain the empathy, decentralization, and innovation they want. And they, too, will be right within their context. However, many would argue that they are embracing more of the keys to agility than their Alpha counterparts and are a more agile organization. Keeping to their definition, they may turn away valuable "agilists" who are trying to join their team and accomplish the same goals but aren't given the chance due to their overly "Agile-focused" titles & resumes. They may also suppress internal initiatives in related approaches if they have any "Agile" association, limiting their overall ceiling for effectiveness. Here is a visual of the definitions:

Agile is Having an Identity Crisis

Of course, this "classical Agile" portrayal feels a little limited. I'm certain the wisdom of the manifesto authors extended beyond what is shown here. Don't you think that satisfying the customer has some empathy components? Doesn't welcoming changing requirements, MVP, reflection and emerging architecture speak to build-measure-learn with some ideation? I think so.

Now what?

A few years back, some colleagues and I set forth to describe a list of agile values which we felt provided a holistic summary of what all companies are striving for. Most of our customers are non-software development shops, so we wanted to provide them some clarity as they embarked on a journey to change their organizations' processes and culture simultaneously. The concepts originated from conferences, books, whitepapers, and experience, and we assembled our shortlist. We vetted this list across many industries and have refined it over the past three years - but recognize that it is a living, breathing list that will continue to evolve. These "modern agile" principles encompass the spirit of all the valuable principles from the manifesto, along with the innovation, discovery, lean and other concepts that at their core are driving toward responsiveness and effectiveness.

Moving forward

The definition problem that agile/Agile/agility has won't be solved here. People will continue to use "Agile" to refer to the Agile Manifesto's software development context, the utilization of a methodology without the supporting cultural principles, or something else. The best way to get beyond the confusion is to stop using the words and start using their purpose. If you want to be more nimble and responsive - go do that. If you want to be more transparent, collaborative and innovative - go do that. If you strive to decentralize more control or become more empathetic - then do that. Or do them all. But let's agree on one thing - stop capitalizing adjectives and making them nouns!

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