What is Agile? - A Beginner's Guide

January 3, 2019
8 minute read

When we think of someone who is agile, we think of flexibility, ease of movement, responsiveness to changing challenges and demands. We imagine lightness, nimbleness and grace. A gymnast is flexible and can twist and bend to accomplish many feats. A cat is nimble as it jumps over obstacles. A willow tree is graceful as it responds to the changing winds.

What is Agile?

Agile is a philosophy and mindset, or a way of approaching work with greater fluidity, agility and responsiveness to the demands of one’s profession and to customers’ needs. It enables those doing the work to collaborate, to take action, and thereby to experience greater ownership and a sense of accomplishment.

The idea sprung up in the software sector, and Wikipedia describes it this way:

“Agile software development is an approach to software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customer(s)/end user(s). It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.

The term agile…was popularized, in this context, by the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The values and principles espoused in this manifesto were derived from and underpin a broad range of software development frameworks, including Scrum and Kanban.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agile_software_development)

To help you align with agility, it is critical that you read and study for yourself the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which outlines the values and delineates the principles that help people to understand an agile practice. The following is the opening statement of the Manifesto, written by 17 practicing software developers in 2001:

“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.”


These core values precede a list of 12 principles that must be followed by those wishing to be agile, such as: “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project,” and “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

To expand on that specific principle, being Agile is also about embracing the concept of collaboration, teamwork, and collective ownership of the deliverable. For a team to be Agile they must be focused on the team’s ability to succeed on delivering the solution and not on any one individual’s contributions, skills, or challenges. Individuals will certainly contribute towards a team’s success, but real team Agility is to embrace diversity and believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Agile Work vs. Other Ways

There are key distinguishing features between agile and traditional or conventional approaches to doing work. Traditionally, plan-driven development is carried out before you do the actual work. Essentially this is a predictive approach to planning, and becomes a measurement of success in itself. It means you have begun with a clear and stable set of requirements. Herein lies the difficulty, as requirements are rarely stable and invariably change. Whereas, agile is tolerant of changes in requirements; in fact, it creates an adaptive approach with delivery occurring over several iterations. This is an evolutionary approach to software design: adaptive versus predictive. Agile is now seen worldwide as the “mature” way to develop software, as it inherently assumes variability and complexity.

A most fascinating evolution of the agile values and principles is that they can be translated to assist organizations other than those creating software. Many businesses and other kinds of organizations throughout the world have been adopting agile as a way to maximize their effectiveness, and increase their ability to deal with and to overcome disruption. For example, at Berteig we have used agile processes to help Suncor with mining projects, the Sick Kids Foundation with strategic planning, and Integra Technologies with their accounts receivables.

Agile and Scrum

Since the writing of the Agile Manifesto, specific tools with their own systems of principles and rules are being used to assist people to do agile more effectively. The most popular tool or framework is called Scrum. Significantly, Scrum was developed well before the Agile manifesto appeared. Wikipedia has a great summary of Scrum:

“Scrum is an agile framework for managing knowledge work, with an emphasis on software development. It is designed for teams of three to nine members, who break their work into actions that can be completed within time-boxed iterations, called “sprints”, no longer than one month and most commonly two weeks, then track progress and re-plan in 15-minute stand-up meetings, called daily scrums.

…Scrum’s approach to planning and managing product development involves bringing decision-making authority to the level of operation properties and certainties…Since 2009, there is a public document called The Scrum Guide that defines a sort of official version of Scrum and is occasionally revised. In 2018 it was expanded upon with the publication ofThe Kanban Guide for Scrum Teams.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrum_(software_development)

The Scrum Guide enunciates values that work harmoniously with those in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

“When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone. The Scrum Team members learn and explore those values as they work with the Scrum events, roles and artifacts.

The successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living these five values…Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people.”

I invite readers to examine the entire Scrum Guide, as it provides clarity and guidance about the use of Scrum. (https://scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html)

Kanban and Agility

Kanban is another technique commonly associated with agility available to organizations. Scrum and Kanban are complementary and Kanban can even be used to assist struggling Scrum teams.

Kanban is a method of organizing and managing professional services work. It uses Lean concepts such as limiting work in progress to improve results. A Kanban system is a means of limiting work-in-progress and signalling when capacity is available to start new work.

Kanban is an alternate path to agility. It can be less disruptive than other known agile frameworks in that it starts by visualizing the flow of value through your current system, keeping current roles and processes in place. Then through empirical analysis Kanban is used to recommend specific policies and actions to help the system evolve and improve through evolutionary change.

Kanban follows a set of principles which are centred around leadership, the customer, and the work. Kanban also has a set of practices that help those doing the work take appropriate actions, where focus is placed on the work and not on the individuals. The Kanban method is to employ a constant inspect and adapt approach for seeking continuous improvement in an organization’s customer-focused delivery model.

Next Steps Towards Real Agility

This article is simply a beginner’s guide to agility. Yet an intellectual understanding of agile is unfortunately not enough. Agility may seem straightforward, but because it asks people to fundamentally change the way they think and work, it becomes very difficult. Like becoming an elite dancer, it is almost impossible to master agility without consulting and coaching, and that is where help from experts becomes important, to help improve your odds of a successful agile adoption.

We have experienced, certified trainers, coaches and consultants at BERTEIG that have a deep understanding of agile, and are expert in Scrum and Kanban. Our people can be particularly helpful in agile transformation consulting, and in leadership and team coaching. They can assist your organization to decide which of the hundreds of agile practices and frameworks best suits your needs and how to adopt them. Please refer to https://www.berteig.com for more information on how we can help.

Authors: Valerie Senyk and Jerry Doucett.

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