What is Agile?

By Aaron Bjork

what is agile

Agile is a term used to describe approaches to software development emphasizing incremental delivery, team collaboration, continual planning, and continual learning. The term “Agile” was coined in 2001 in the Agile Manifesto. The manifesto set out to establish principles to guide a better approach to software development. The manifesto set out to establish principles to guide a better approach to software development. At its core, the manifesto declares 4 value statements representing the foundation of the agile movement. As written, the manifesto states…

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

This does not imply the items on the right side of these statements aren’t important or needed; rather, items on the left are simply more valued.

Agile methods and practices

It’s important to understand that agile is not a “thing” … you don’t “do Agile”. Rather, agile is a mindset. A mindset that drives an approach to software development. There’s not one approach here that works for all situations, rather the term “Agile” has come to represent a variety of methods and practices that align with the value statements in the manifesto.

Agile methods (often called frameworks) are comprehensive approaches to phases of the software development lifecycle –  planning, execution, and delivery. They prescribe a method for accomplishing work, with clear guidance and principles. Scrum is the most common agile framework (and the one most people start with).

Agile practices on the other hand, are techniques applied during phases of the software development lifecycle. Planning Poker for example, is a collaborative estimation practice designed to encourage team members to share their understanding of what “done” means. The process is quite fun, and has proven to help foster teamwork and better estimates. Continuous Integration (also known as CI) is a common agile engineering practice where code changes are integrated into the main branch frequently.  An automated build verifies changes, leading to a reduction in integration debt and a continually shippable main branch. These practices (like all agile practices) carry the “Agile” label, because they are consistent with the principles in the agile manifesto.

What agile isn’t

As agile has gained popularity, many stereotypes and/or misinterpretations have cast a negative shadow regarding its effectiveness. It’s easy to say “Yes, we’re doing Agile”, without any accountability. Considering this, let’s look at a few things that Agile isn’t.

  • Agile is not cowboy coding. Agile should not be confused with a “we’ll figure it out as we go” approach to software development. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Agile requires both a Definition of Done and value delivered to customers in every sprint. While Agile values autonomy for individuals and teams; Agile emphasizes aligned autonomy, ensuring the delivery of increased value through increased autonomy.
  • Agile is not without rigor and planning. On the contrary, Agile methodologies and practices typically emphasize discipline in planning. The key is continual planning throughout the project, not just planning up front. Continual planning ensures the team can learn from the work they’re executing, thus maximizing planning ROI (return on investment).

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

  • Agile is not an excuse for the lack of a roadmap. This one has probably done the most harm to the agile movement overall. Organizations and teams following an Agile approach absolutely know where they’re going… and the results they want to achieve. Recognizing change as a part of the process (an agile approach) is different from pivoting in a new direction every week, sprint, or month.
  • Agile is not development without specifications. It’s necessary in any project to keep your team aligned on “why” and “how” work will happen. An agile approach to specs includes ensuring specs are “right-sized”, and reflect appropriately how the team will sequence and deliver work.

Why agile?

So why would anyone consider an agile approach? It’s clear the rules of engagement around building software have fundamentally changed in the last 10-15 years. Many of the activities look similar, but the landscape and environments where we apply them are noticeably different. Consider for a moment what it’s like to purchase software today… when compared to the early 2000’s. When was the last time you drove to the store to buy software? Consider how you collect feedback from the customers using your products. How did we understand what people thought about our software before social media? Finally, think about how often you desire to update and improve the software you’re delivering. Delivering updates once a year doesn’t sound like a recipe for winning. Forrester’s Diego Lo Guidice and Dave West said it best in paper titled Transforming Application Delivery (February of 2011).

“Firms today experience a much higher velocity of business change. Market opportunities appear or dissolve in months or weeks instead of years. “ — Diego Lo Guidice and Dave West, Forrester

The rules have changed, and organizations around the world are now adapting their approach to software development accordingly. Agile methods and practices don’t promise to solve every problem. But they do promise to establish a culture and environment where solutions emerge… through collaboration, continual planning and learning, and a desire to ship high quality software more often.

get started for free Get started with free agile tools in Visual Studio Team Services.