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June 13, 2014

What is Agile?

4 mins read

If you work in technology – or business in general – then you’ve probably heard or read the word Agile used daily to describe software development and management practices used by successful organizations.

But what is Agile really? Don’t feel bad if you are asking this question – it’s a great one! While Agile is becoming the norm for managing IT projects, there are still a lot of assumptions out there about what it is and how to get it right.

While we love it and live it every day, we thought it would be helpful to describe what Agile means, and the benefits, to anyone who might be new to the concept or in need of a refresher!

The Agile Mindset

There is a common misconception that Agile is something you can just do. It’s not.

Agile is a mindset. It’s something you have to believe in, and use that belief to drive the things you want to do. Believing in the principles of Agile is necessary, or you don’t really understand its value in practice.

Back in 2001, 17 software developers created the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development.” The manifesto articulates Agile values of software development, with special emphasis on four core elements:

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

In addition to these four elements, there are 12 principles behind the Agile Manifesto that Agilists believe in and adhere to in their work. Some of these include focusing on satisfying the customer, attention to technical excellence, and simplicity in design. Becoming familiar with these principles and applying them to your own software development projects—even if your team isn’t formally following an Agile methodology—can add a lot of value to your work.

Agile Is…and Is Not

The textbook definition of Agile, if there is one, is that it’s a software development methodology featuring cross-functional teams that focus on iterative and incremental design and development, with requirements and solutions that evolve over time. It has become the leading methodology for software development teams around the world with a growing number of software development teams adopting Agile to create technology products and solutions.

It’s important to note that Agile is not a single methodology; there are a variety of methodologies that fall under the umbrella all of which share the same philosophy of incremental, iterative software development while featuring their own tactics and variations. Some examples include:

  • Scrum
  • Kanban
  • Lean
  • Extreme Programming (XP)

Scrum is probably the most well known and most used methodology listed above. However, a good Agilist should be well versed in a variety of methodologies in order to be responsive, rather than prescriptive, to the needs of a client. The best solution for a problem should employ the right methodology to maximize value.

Principles and Practices

Iterative and incremental software development is core to Agile. Other methodologies, such as waterfall, separate requirements, development, and testing into different phases and are rigid in structure. Agile, on the other hand, is flexible, with requirements and solutions that evolve over time. Agile’s advantage is that it responds to change in real-time rather than follows a set plan—a stark contrast to the waterfall method.

There is a misconception that there is no planning involved with Agile. The reality is to the contrary—there’s a lot of planning involved when a software development team adopts Agile. There’s a cadence and consistency to Agile planning that keeps projects on track without being too rigid. It allows for novel solutions to arise because of the feedback loop that is in place.

Making It Work

Effective Agile software development is a collaborative effort. Cross-functional teams are generally a mix of UX/UI designers, business analysts, developers, and testers. Dedicated team members work together to get things done with sprint planning, review, and retrospectives serving as important components to the development process because they facilitate open lines of communication.

While Agile is primarily used in software development environments, many of its principles can be adopted and applied to other environments, such as marketing or communications. There are a lot of Agile engineering best practices that are valuable to follow, even if a team is not formally using a specific methodology (i.e. test-driven development, continuous integration, pair programming, etc.).

Education is also key. Reading articles and blog posts, attending conferences and engaging with experts is going to help further your understanding of Agile. Training and certification is helpful to implementing Agile correctly and making it work for the long-term. Many people working in software development and IT earn the Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), and/or Certified Scrum Developer (CSD) certifications, and can go on to earn additional certifications in Scrum coaching and training.

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