What Is Agile? The Four Essential Elements

Last week, I found myself in a lively conversation with some colleagues about the true meaning of Agile management and how to communicate it

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How do you determine whether a team, a unit or an organization is—or is not—Agile? An ability to answer the question simply, clearly, and consistently can be critical inside an organization, particularly a large organization. For one thing, many different flavors of Agile have been disseminated by advocates, as shown in the figure below. These variants were issued with the best intentions. But in the resulting cacophony, it is easy to lose sight of what is essential to Agile. And it’s even easier for critics to conclude that perhaps Agile is no more than noise and confusion.

Moreover, in a world in which poorly-implemented Agile can give Agile a bad name, it is important to be able to articulate what are the minimum viable requirements of true Agile? And how do you distinguish that from fake Agile, i.e. firms that proudly proclaim, “We are Agile!” when it is an open secret that their implementation is a travesty of the real thing. What exactly is the real thing? And how do you communicate that inside and outside the organization?

The Answer In 2001

In 2001, at the outset of the Agile movement, the best, and perhaps the only, answer was: “genuine Agile means understanding and accepting the four values and twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto—the document that launched the movement.” But is that answer still valid today?

  • First, the sheer number of elements—sixteen—is too many for the practical purpose of communicating Agile in a large organization. To be successful, Agile leaders need something simple, crisp and clear. They need to be able to communicate the essence of Agile in no more than three or four elements.
  • Second, the reality is that, despite the brilliance of the Manifesto, the Agile movement has evolved beyond what was envisaged by the seventeen software developers who crafted the Manifesto in that ski lodge in Snowbird, Utah in 2001. Those software developers were naturally focused on software development and the language of the Manifesto reflects that. Yet today, Agile thinking is being applied to all kinds of work. For that broader challenge, language that is peculiar to software development is a handicap.
  • Third, the very concept of Agile has evolved since 2001. Some elements of Agile that have come to be seen as central, such as an Agile mindset, are not explicitly mentioned in the Manifesto. It is also now common today to distinguish between “doing Agile” and “being Agile”—a distinction not mentioned in the Manifesto. Moreover, the Manifesto was focused on what was involved in creating high-performing teams, whereas today Agile is being applied not just to teams but to the whole organization: the challenge becomes one of business agility. Communicating Agile in language that doesn’t reflect this evolution is less effective than it might be.
  • Finally, recognizing the limitations of the language of the Agile Manifesto 0f 2001 means no disrespect to the significance of the Manifesto or the accomplishment of its drafters. The fact that Agile has evolved is evidence of its success, not its failure. The Manifesto remains a document of historical importance in the history of management. As with historical documents like the Magna Carta (1215) or the Declaration of Independence (1776), there is little point in trying to rewrite it. The Manifesto is something that will continue to be an inspiration because it encapsulated the spirit of a new approach to creating meaningful work for a new millennium. While recognizing that it cannot be rewritten without risking its historical significance, as a practical matter Agile leaders need a way to communicate Agile in the way that it is being implemented today. And they need to do this clearly, simply, consistently, and compellingly, both inside and outside the organization.

Articulating Agile For Today

In September 2016, a group of large firms came together in New York to tackle this tangle of issues head-on. They set out to see whether they could agree on what Agile stood for in their own organizations.

These firms were all passionately interested in and committed to implementing Agile management. My take is that they shared a horror of bureaucracy and the crimping impact it has on the human spirit and the living aspect of human activity. They saw work as involving a great deal more than the performance of given tasks. They aspired to create workplaces that allowed the human spirit to soar, that created meaning and joy, that drew on everyone’s creative talents, that allowed people to live, to eat, to drink, to work and to indulge in a thousand and one acts without which people wither and die, all the while in workplaces that are highly productive and profitable.

In this effort to spell out the essence of Agile for today, these firms weren’t starting from scratch. For several years, they had been conducting site visits to each other, and to other firms implementing Agile management, in order to learn about better ways to manage in the spirit of the Agile Manifesto. These firms were working in different sectors and in different countries. All of them saw themselves as being on journeys to create energizing workplaces that lead to continuous innovation for customers. They were all facing similar challenges. They came together to digest and share their findings with each other and eventually with the world.

After several days of a lively debate, the firms converged on four elements of the Agile mindset that they saw as representing the essence of Agile for their organizations:

  • delighting customers
  • descaling work
  • enterprise-wide Agility
  • nurturing culture.

These themes are spelt out in more detail in their report as follows:

  • “Delighting customers: An obsession with continuously adding value for customers and users, as well as a recognition of the current need to generate instant, intimate, frictionless value at scale, anywhere, anytime, on any device. As a result of globalization, deregulation, knowledge work and new technology, power in the marketplace has shifted from seller to buyer: the customer has now become the boss. This is more than an increased attention to customers: it is a fundamental shift in the goal of the organization—a veritable Copernican revolution in management.
  • Descaling workA presumption that in a volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous world, big difficult problems need to be dis-aggregated into small batches and performed by small cross-functional autonomous teams, working iteratively in short cycles in a state of flow, with fast feedback from customers and end-users.
  • Enterprise-wide Agility: A recognition that, to be fully entrepreneurial, the whole organization needs to embrace the entrepreneurial mindset: the entire firm functions as an interactive network, not a top-down bureaucracy with just a few teams implementing Agile tools and processes. In effect, Agility is not just for IT: it is a change in the way that the whole organization thinks, is led and managed.
  • Nurturing culture: A never-ending commitment to actively nurture, and systematically strengthen, entrepreneurial mindsets and behavior throughout the organization. This includes everything from leadership, strategy and values to on-boarding, training, communications and personnel management.”

“A universal feature of all the site visits was a recognition that achieving continuous innovation is dependent on an entrepreneurial mindset pervading the organization. Where the management tools and processes of Agile, Lean or Kanban are implemented without the requisite mindset, few, if any, benefits were observed.”

The firms involved were members of the SD Learning Consortium (SDLC)—a non-profit corporation registered in the state of Virginia, USA. The current SDLC members are Barclays, Cerner, CHRobinson, Ericsson, Fidelity Investments, Microsoft, Riot Games, and Vistaprint. With the potential incoming members in 2018, the SDLC members have combined market capitalization that exceeds $1 trillion and employ more than a million people. The firms are thus a significant slice of the corporate world. Their findings are available here.

Should We Call This “Agile”?

While there is agreement among the SDLC members on these four principles, there is continuing discussion about the use of the word, “Agile.” At least one member of the SDLC has preferred to disassociate itself from the phrase "Agile management," in order to escape from "the baggage of Agile" or what I would call "fake Agile." Thus in 2015, Menlo Innovations, which was a Learning Consortium member at the time, declared itself in pursuit of "joy in the workplace," rather than “Agile,” although in practice Menlo also embodied the SDLC's four principles.

Another member of the SDLC puts considerable emphasis on becoming "better, faster, cheaper"  ahead of calling what it is doing “Agile.” This entails risks. Thus, if a firm pursues the entrepreneurial mindset and the four SDLC principles, it will probably end up doing things "better, faster and cheaper." But the reverse may not be true. The pursuit of "better, faster, cheaper," could lead back to Frederick Taylor's Scientific Management, or "twice the work in the half the time," i.e. sweatshop management. Some would argue that "better, faster, cheaper" should be seen more as a result than a goal.

Does any of this matter? Is it just an argument about words? I am inclined to think that words do matter. Being clear as to what Agile firms do—and don't do—will be a key to establishing Agile as a source of high-quality leadership and management. There are continuing pressures to "dumb down" Agile into a caricature of its essence and then use this caricature as a basis for maintaining the status quo or shoehorning Agile into traditional management as "just another set of tools and processes."

The SDLC members continue to find their formulation of the characteristics of Agile useful in their communications. Yet the four principles are not seen as a final statement. The SDLC members continue to explore an array of practical issues, including: How does a firm preserve the “magic of an Agile teams” when it goes from a handful of Agile teams to hundreds of Agile teams? What is the role of leadership in an Agile organization on a large scale? How does strategic Agility and market-creating innovation fit into the Agile way of getting things done? Upgrading answers to these questions may eventually result in further evolutions of the enunciated principles. Agile management is thus a continuing journey of discovery, in which a firm never finally “arrives.”

A Comparison With The Agile Manifesto

The four principles as articulated by the SDLC members in 2016 were not crafted with the intent of replacing the Agile Manifesto, which stands as a historical document in its own right. The principles represent an articulation of what the members stood for and believed at that time.

  1. A Distillation Of What Is Important in Agile

The four elements are easier to remember and communicate than the sixteen elements of the 2001 Manifesto. They also help identify which organizations are Agile in name only. For instance, a firm that claims to be Agile but sees Agile as something limited to IT is clearly falling short in the terms of the SDLC principles. By contrast, such a firm could make a plausible argument that it is implementing the letter of the Agile Manifesto, which didn’t concern itself with issues beyond software development.

The reduction in the number of elements doesn’t reflect a watering down of the Manifesto. Rather it is distilled and concentrated version of the essence of the Manifesto. It aspires to communicate the intrinsic and indispensable qualities of Agile management. Paradoxicallly, in communication terms, less is more.

       2. Recognizing The Centrality Of The Customer

In particular, the SDLC principles give prime importance of the organization delivering value to the customer. By contrast, the Manifesto also includes customer collaboration, but only as the third value. And customer satisfaction as listed as one of twelve principles but in a separate annex. For the firms of the SDLC, focusing the whole organization on creating value for the customer is the most important element of all.

Moreover, the references to the customer in the Manifesto are references to Agile teams: teams should focus on satisfying the customer. The Manifesto is silent on what should be the goal of the organization. In a world in which maximizing shareholder value is seen in many public corporations as the overriding goal for the firm as a whole, this gap is problematic. Thus, there are many organizations where the software development teams are focused on satisfying the customer but the firm as a whole is focused on maximizing shareholder value—a very different goal; not surprisingly, in such organizations the different value systems frequently lead to tension, conflict and eventually suppression of Agile management within the organization.

     3. Enterprise-wide Agility and Agile culture

The focus of the Manifesto is on creating Agile teams. It seems to have been assumed that if a firm could set up Agile teams, then the whole firm would become Agile, the firm would make money, and everyone would be happy. Sadly, the experience since 2001 suggests the opposite: merely plugging Agile teams into a top-down bureaucracy doesn’t make the whole firm Agile. Instead, the bureaucracy tends to limit the benefits that Agile teams can generate and redirect energy towards cost-cutting and extracting value for shareholders, rather than generating new value for customers. Ultimately, the Agile revolution cannot fully succeed unless the whole organization embraces its values and culture.

The Role Of Scaling Frameworks

It is an interesting feature of firms that are on successful Agile journeys that there is little sustained reliance on external consultants or scaling frameworks. Their journeys tend to be characterized by organic growth nurtured by a shared Agile mindset of those leading the organization at every level.

These leaders recognize why scaling frameworks, such as SAFe, LESS and DAD, have proliferated, given the absence of guidance in the Agile Manifesto as to how Agile thinking should be applied to whole organizations.

Yet it’s also easy to see why these leaders have reservations about implementing predetermined frameworks. First, the prescriptions of a predetermined framework—regardless of its content—smacks of top-down command and control, namely, the very thing that Agile management is trying to get away from.

Second, most of these frameworks focus on specifying the internal functioning of the organization, whereas the spirit of Agile as perceived by the SDLC members is externally focused on delivering more value to customers. The more a firm is preoccupied by the internal machinations among its silos and its levels, the more it is distracted from achieving its true goal: delighting the customer.

Third, the emphasis of the SDLC’s principles is more on descaling big complex problems into small pieces than on scaling up the organization to match the complexity of the problems it is dealing with. Hence scaling frameworks are often seen as encouraging the reverse of the thinking that is needed.

It is not surprising to find that most scaling frameworks assign a derisively tiny role to the customer, for example, as shown in the most popular of the frameworks, the SAFe framework. Such charts are a vivid illustration of pre-Copernican management thinking in action.

Implications For The Future

The SDLC members do not claim to have any final answers on the true meaning of Agile.  They are not prescribing their conclusions to the rest of the world. They have disseminated their formulation in case other organizations find them useful. Their formulation isn’t frozen in time. The firms are continuing to learn from their own Agile journeys. They go on looking for ways to make the workplace better for those doing the work, for those for whom the work is done, as well as for the organization as a whole. They will continue to share their findings as they learn more. They welcome alternative viewpoints for consideration.

Disclosure: The author is a non-paid pro bono director of the SD Learning Consortium. Some of the material in this article will appear in a different form in my forthcoming book, The Age of Agile.

Steve Denning, Contributor

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