What is “agile” actually?

Peter Burghardt05/23/2019

Everyone’s talking about them, and there’s no getting around them – I'm talking about agility and agile working methods. But what do these terms really mean?

What is agility exactly? It’s a simple question... with a not-so-simple answer. Sure, there’s a ton of literature out there on all things like “agile,” but that still doesn’t make the term any easier to pin down. If we were to ask five “agile coaches” to define agile practices, we’d probably get eight different answers.

The book “The Agile Mindset” from Svenja Hofert describes five levels of agility.

  1. Agility as a philosophy
  2. Agility as an attitude
  3. Agility as an approach to business management
  4. Agility as an approach to human resource management (focus on self-organized teams)
  5. Agility as a process framework

So, it’s a broad field that offers something for everyone. Whether you work in HR or you're a project manager, an executive or a manager (or even part of the executive leadership) - agility can be applied anywhere.

Let’s focus for now on the 5th level, the process frameworks. Here, we often run into problems, since this level can’t function without the others.

Agility as a process framework

The best example of this level is probably Scrum. Scrum is an agile software development method and is based on the agile software development manifesto. This manifesto defines values and principles and thus represents a philosophy and an attitude that constitute the basis for agile software development methods.

However, this means that if an organization doesn’t support this philosophy or attitude or simply doesn’t have it, then agile software development methods won’t work. In other words, using scrum doesn’t necessarily mean being agile.

Implementing agile practices likewise doesn’t necessarily have to mean using scrum. There are other frameworks to choose from. It’s also possible to define frameworks that are entirely unique. But this requires a certain degree of agile maturity in the company and experience in the existing frameworks.

More about the topic

If you think about using agile methods for implementing your next ERP system, it would probably also be interesting for you what criteria to establish for the ERP evaluations process.

Learn more

Complicated, but doable

Once you start working with agility, you figure out pretty quickly that it’s not always easy to implement. So what does it take to successful start out in agility?

A while ago, I put forth the following proposition: “Agility is at the root of us humans and our natural way of doing things. We just ran off agility and need to relearn it.”

Let’s take a little trip back to the stone age... but with a modern perspective. The tribe is hungry, they need to obtain food. So the hunters all sit down together, define all the requirements and come up with a plan. According to the results of their evaluation process, the mammoth needs to be ready to be cooked by the following evening. In retrospect, they should have gone hunting the day before yesterday. To make up for this, the tribe decides to send more hunters on the trip. It’s a lovely imagination, but I doubt that it would have happened that way.

What would they really need back then in order to hunt successfully? A team, that has all the skills necessary to hunt the animal – trappers, trackers, archers and more. A leader who defines the objective within a team and explains them what to do. A plan that can be adjusted at any time. That’s agile working! So why is it so difficult to revert to our agile ways of working?

I'm afraid that the industrial revolution is to blame. “Command and Control” was the philosophy at that point of time, and “do as you’re told” was the attitude. The reason for this was probably the huge number of unskilled workers. This style of management was applied over the course of a century. As a result (at least in my opinion) we lost a great amount of opportunities.

It doesn’t take much to get started in agility. Courage, respect, openness and trust are all it takes. Nevertheless, the path to agility is long and potentially excruciating.

Agility – the one-size-fits-all-solution?

No, definitely not. Agility is not appropriate for every situation. Different circumstances require different approaches. Not every project can be done using agile working methods. For example, houses can hardly be built in an agile manner. If we think about crisis situations, it is certain that they rather require “command and control” approaches than agility. But despite everything, it still makes sense to leave room for agility. It will still add something great and contribute to better results.

So, pull on your fur loincloth, and wake up the caveman within! Can’t wait to hear what you guys think of this topic.

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Peter Burghardt
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