Sunday, October 05, 2008

What is Agile? and Who owns "Agile"?

When I talk to people about Agile I’m always keen to try and define “what is Agile”. I have two standard answers.

The first is to say “Agile” has come to mean “better” - as in “we cannot get software out the door”, “our software development is a mess” or “our senior management are fed up with us” and something has to change.

These people want to do “better.” Some of these people and companies would have considered ISO-9000, CMM(I), or similar a few years ago, and they may look for answers in technical products: UML, Ruby on Rails, ClearCase or something.

Since Agile is the current buzz, and since Agile has a lower barrier to entry than ISO-9000 or CMM then these groups look at Agile to solve their problems and to make them “better.” Some of these people don’t really know what Agile “is” and really it doesn’t matter.

The second way I define Agile is with two, sometimes three, tests:

1. Agile teams are listening and responding to their customers: they are delivering (software) which adds value to the business and responding to changing needs (whether from an individual user or a large market)

2. Agile teams are learning and improving

Notice I don’t talk about practices, values or routines. If you are learning and improving I don’t care what you do because I believe you will get their eventually. And since their is no reason why any existing Agile method is right for your company you are free to create your own, one that fits with your organization and your culture. Provide that is you meet the first test and serve your customers.

For the record, the third test which doesn’t always apply to my customers but which I need to keep in mind is:

3. When all the consultants, coaches, trainers and other who helped you get Agile leave you do not fall back to your old ways.

The reason for saying this now is to point out that Nobody Owns “Agile”. There is an Agile manifesto, there are Agile values and Agile principles, there are lots of books on Agile but there is no one single definition.

This is a strength and a weakness. It allows opinions to vary and new ideas to appear but it also means that you get different versions of “what is Agile” and they don’t always agree. For example, in the UK I am often at conferences with people like Steve Freeman, Keith Braithwaite, Kevlin Henney and Duncan Pierce, we agree on almost everything. We each emphasis different aspects of Agile, we each have different concerns, we approach engagements differently and we see the future differently. Dig deep enough and you will find differences.

If someone owned “Agile” - like RUP and PRINCE2 are owned - there would be things which would be ruled out. There would be someone who would come up to me and say “What you say about X is wrong.” Agile isn’t like that, its a broad umbrella, you have to decide for yourself who and what is best for you.

Agile is a story, it is a story that changes in the telling. It is post-modern, by which I mean, there are multiple versions which are all, simultaneously “true” - there is no absolute for truth.

There are a few people who I have more serious disagreements with, and I really wish they wouldn’t call themselves “Agile” but that is the price you pay of this freedom.

Look again at my second test: Learning and improving. This applies to your own understanding and definition of Agile too. Our understanding evolve.

This has to be your own understanding, belief and principles. Look at my third test: you can’t rely on others for ever.

And this divergence of views, competition in some instances, and new knowledge should ensure we are all aiming to do better. Back to where we started, and I think if you talk to any of the people I mentioned above they will agree: doing Agile isn’t important, its the end goal that is important and that means being better.

The only thing that remains constant is that second test: serving the customer.

Markets might be a little out of fashion at the moment but nobody is seriously suggesting a return to an Agro-economy or Communism Mark 2. The free market economy - or something that looks a lot like it - is here to stay and that means customers are here to stay.

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