What is agile?



Our students are encountering buzzwords all the time. One term that we are asked about most often is “agile.” What does agile mean? And how can you leverage it to help your team and your business?

What is agile?

Development practices that we refer today as “agile” have been around as early as the 1950s. The term agile became formalized when, in 2001, a group of leading software developers came together in Snowbird, Utah and wrote the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. It said, in its entirety:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

To supplement the manifesto, the group wrote 12 Principles that more comprehensively define agile software development.

Since 2001, as interest in the term has increased, its definition has expanded. Many companies now talk about agile along the lines of its dictionary definition–able to move quickly and easily–instead of with strict adherence to the manifesto or its principles.

The simplest way to think about agile today is as “a way of doing work.” Originally this work was building software. Now it can be almost anything.

To delve deeper, we turned to the experience of our instructors–tech industry practitioners who also teach GA’s Corporate Training students regularly about agile and other topics.

GA Corporate Training instructor Jocelyn Miller has been working on agile teams at different organizations–including Zazzle, Google, and Amazon–since 2003. In her words, agile is “an overblown term for a ton of methods that mean iterating. It means taking things in chunks, rather than trying to have a plan worked out from the get go. Some people are very purist about agile–they take the 12 principles of agile and follow it. Personally, I am very averse to any method that says it’s the one method to rule the all. A lot of this stuff is very context dependent.”

Why transition to an agile way of working?

We polled our instructors and clients, and learned that, in the right circumstances, working in an agile way can:

  • avoid waste
  • get products to market faster
  • mitigate risk by identifying problems sooner
  • lower costs
  • encourage a sense of ownership in employees

Agile v. waterfall?

Jonathan Bertfield–product management consultant and GA Corporate Training instructor–sees agile as a mindset that’s easier to understand when defined in contrast to waterfall, another way of doing work:

“The old waterfall style approach meant things done in sequence. You finish things in a defined box before you move to the next one. Agile sees those things as all happening at the same time. And agile says it’s good to get to the market fast, not perfect. The feedback will tell you whether the work you’re doing is valuable.”

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What is hard about transitioning to an agile way of working?

Arshad Wala, who works as a Product Strategist at Philosophie and as a corporate training instructor at General Assembly, says that while the agile framework is easy to understand, transitioning to an agile way of working is “painful.”

“Take a hierarchy that people find important and now you’re saying, ‘That’s not important.’ This will be painful and will generate tension and it is easy to fall back to old habits.”

When an agile team is working, their roadmap will depend much more on designing tests, running them in the real world, and learning from them. It will depend less on who wins in-meeting debates and executives’ “expertise” about what customers will want.

“It removes people’s pride of having the right answer. The super smart executive is no longer needed because a lot relies on testing.”

What are the ideal conditions for transitioning to an agile way of working?

  1. Ambiguity: Jocelyn says, “agile is helpful when you don’t know your product or your market yet. If there’s a lot of stuff you don’t know, then agile is really good.” But that there are projects for which a waterfall way of working makes more sense–one example would be a project restructuring a company’s database, where you want to establish your requirements early on because changes at the database level are usually high cost.
  1. Openness: Arshad cites openness to new processes as the number one requirement for a successful transition to an agile way of working. This means “openness to listen to people, and to new processes,” but also openness to breaking the rules: “You have to make your agile process yours.  Learn the rules, master the rules, then break the rules to suit your company.”
  1. Autonomy: General Assembly clients have had success transitioning to an agile way of working when teams that own a cohesive product sit together. In a best case scenario, that team is granted the autonomy to decide how they will work and the dispensation from senior leadership to do things differently. It is possible for big companies to do this well.

This is just the beginning of agile and all it can offer. If you’d like to learn more about General Assembly’s product management training for corporate audiences see below:

Learn more about Product Management Training