What is Agile?

Over the last few years, the word Agile (or agile with a small a) has taken on different meanings and been 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 a beginner to get their head around it.

The Agile Onion diagram is still the best overview I can find (see this in video form at the end of this article).

the awa agile onion annotated cc
What is Agile – the AWA agile onion

If you were thinking that 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 Agile Onion. But Agile is a whole lot more than that.

Tools

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.

Practices

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

‘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

‘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.

Mindset

Finally, the hardest for all to see, is 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.

So then, what is agile?

Agile is this all-important organisational mindset shift. 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.

Curious about Agile ways of working? We answer your most frequently asked questions here.
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13 thoughts on “What is Agile?”

  1. Pingback: Practising your Process | On The Outside

  2. Some of the links on this page are broken (but it forms part of the pre-work for one of your courses)

    1. Hi sandra – thanks for the comments- we have checked through and fixed the broken links. Please let us know if you are still unable to access the content

  3. I love the illustration of the agile onion as you put it here. I use it when working with teams and management because it clarifies that agile does not mean Scrum only. However, I have a suggestion. I inverted the onion so that mindset is the ‘inner core’ of the onion. In my opinion, the illustration works better this way because the core is ‘least visible’ but ‘most powerful’ and the very outer layer is ‘most visible’.

    1. Simon Powers

      @Boris – This is one of the most common observations. The onion is deliberately this way around as it is a venn diagram where each circle sits inside one outside.

      The surface area of the circle is how important the element is.

      Hope that clarifies why the onion is this way around.

      1. Boris Karl Schlein

        “as it is a venn diagram where each circle sits inside one outside”
        Ah great! Thanks, this was the missing insight for me. I haven’t seen it as a venn diagram and I must say now I really like your idea. I am going to add it to my “Basics of Agile” sessions in the way that I am using my way to illustrate the onion first (with the mindset as core). Then I switch to the venn diagram version to make even more clear that mindset is the basis that permeates everything.
        You helped me a lot. Thanks again! 🙂

        1. Hi Boris
          Another misconception with the Agile Onion being drawn the opposite way around is that people come across the tools and processes first and then figure out the mindset by doing.
          This doesn’t work. When you eat an onion or any fruit, you start with the outside, not the inside. Putting the tools and processes on the outside often gives the wrong perception that we start with process and not people.

          Individual and Interactions over processes and tool means people over process. Starting with tools and process and hoping people get the mindset is the opposite.

          I would recommend keeping the positioning of the onion as it is as there are many depths and threads to this diagram that might not be apparent to you at the outset.

          I am glad the onion has been helpful and you have derived some value from it.

          Thanks
          Simon

          1. Boris Karl Schlein

            “Individual and Interactions over processes and tool means people over process. Starting with tools and process and hoping people get the mindset is the opposite.”
            Yes, this is exactly what I am discussing in my “Basics of Agile” sessions. That’s why I wrote that the Venn diagram gives me a nice opportunity for storytelling and clarifying this point even more. 🙂

            “When you eat an onion or any fruit, you start with the outside, not the inside.”
            I just love this sentence/metaphor. 🙂

            “I am glad the onion has been helpful and you have derived some value from it.”
            Very much so.

            Thank you very much!
            Boris

  4. Hi Simon!

    First of all, I’m glad to have found the above discussion about the ordering of the layers of the Onion here. I made a similar observation but from the observation perspective and also used an inverted version of the model with some of the people I coach. Because tools and practices are easy to observe without understanding of the inner layers, these aspects might form some kind of definition of agile for some individuals, and to me these are the things that people tend to copy without the imagined end results. An uninformed observer seeing a team in action will not be able to understand the principles and values at play without inquiry, study or assumptions and must therefore “dig deeper” into the onion to further their understanding – which I see as my job to encourage and guide them in doing. However, understanding it as a Venn diagram was also a new insight for me and made me think that perhaps there I could use a different kind of visualization to better show what I wanted so as not to confuse the approaches with the same imagery.

    And now for the question that brought me here in the first place – in the interest of properly giving credit, did you come up with this model or is it derived from somewhere else? I’m afraid the text is not clear about it and only says that it’s the best overview you could find.

  5. Pingback: This is my Why – Learning Agile

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