What is Agile?

Over the last few years, the word Agile (or agile with a small a) has taken on different meanings and used in multiple contexts. This is a short post to give my perspective on what Agile is.

I’m not going to bore you with the 2001 meeting, agile manifesto, or an intro to XP, Scrum or Kanban. That’s been done a gazillion times before.

Instead, I want to look at what Agile is now. And why it is hard for beginners to get their head round it.

This diagram is still the best overview I can find.

the agile onion metaphor for show what agile is

What is Agile – The Agile Onion

If you were thinking Agile is a set of different methodologies for getting software built, then you are only very partially correct. That viewpoint fits well into a subset of the ‘practices’ part of the onion. But Agile is a whole lot more than that.

The larger the onion circle, the more powerful but less obvious it is. ‘Tools’ in the middle are really easy to see. You can see big boards with post-its or Jira instances easily. But on their own, they are pretty useless.

The ‘practices’ include:

  • Scrum
  • Kanban
  • XP
  • Story writing and mapping
  • Prioritising
  • Roadmap creation
  • Beyond budgeting
  • agile HR practices
  • and a whole host of other things.

These practices are really easy to understand, are really hard to make stick and get any real value out them. Ever see a Scrum team doing all the meetings, using Jira, and trying really hard and not getting any value out? Chances are the team, or the organisation is missing the more important circles of the onion.

‘Principles’ are things like, ‘we complete all the work we start in a sprint’, or ‘our highest priority is to produce working and useful software every 2 weeks’. Having these allow the team and organisation to optimise around their principles, cutting away crazy decisions like having a silo database team.

Without principles, the team will optimise around other things, such as:

  • Keeping people busy
  • Bowing to pressure from other sources than the PO
  • Not shaping work correctly

‘Values’ are even more important and even more intangible. We know from ‘5 Dysfunctions of a Team’ that the first starting block for any high performing team is trust. If trust isn’t encouraged through respect and courage to speak out, which are all values, then high performance is going to be a distant concept, perhaps bringing up images of Formula One teams rather than teams at work.

Finally, the hardest for all to see, the ‘Mindset’. You can’t teach this. Or at least not directly. Some people have this naturally. Most children probably do. Sometimes, just like Zen, the Agile Mindset is obtained not by learning, but by unlearning all those layers of command and control, Theory X, and Project Management skills.

By doing and then being agile, and having the support, skills, and knowledge of those around to keep being agile, you can finally have something that works in the organisation.

It’s not to say that the smaller circles don’t add value, but they won’t add as much value as you had hoped or they won’t stick. You must achieve the cultural changes in the organisation that changing the mindset brings.

And this means:

  • the exec team
  • the finance office
  • HR
  • legal
  • procurement
  • and all the middle managers
  • as well as the delivery teams

must make that mindset shift too.

That is what agile is. It is the change of an organisation’s culture from one place to another. That means it is changing what is in people’s heads. It changes the way we think and interact. This takes time as it’s incremental. It can’t be done all at once. This is why it takes so long. It takes time to change the way people are.

Sometimes I think that organisations which are ‘going agile’, don’t realise what they are starting.

Read “What is the Agile Mindset?” next.

Simon Powers is the CEO and founder of Adventures with Agile. He has over 20 years’ experience helping very large organisations to thrive in the market and to be better places to work. His approach led him to create our transformative ICAgile Certified Enterprise Agile Coaching training courses, which run worldwide and online. Simon is one of the first ICE-EC experts in the world.