To Agile or not to Agile? Throw the question out to programmers, consultants, or even Google, and you'll get love letters or tirades, with little in between. Agile is soaring in popularity across industries beyond its origins in software development, but its principles are also widely misapplied and misunderstood.
Youngsters think Agile is for old people. Older programmers think it's just how they worked long before it became a thing.
Managers and business leaders believe Agile is a magic wand that makes customers happy, makes programmers code faster, and can fatten the bottom line.
Simply put, everyone has an opinion on Agile.
But whichever way you feel about it, understanding Agile's underlying principles and pitfalls helps you judge when it's the right solution and when it's not.
Why Agile is loved
Agile inspires teams to self-manage and build working products quickly with frequent deliveries to customers.
Before Agile, nobody was happy with the way software projects were executed.
Programmers spent much of their days writing documentation instead of code, while product owners hyperventilated in a corner somewhere as launch deadlines grew closer without much evidence that the product would actually work. Agile changed all that.
Agile is more effective than the waterfall model for managing software projects
Teams used to manage software projects based on a waterfall model, the knowledge work equivalent of a conveyor belt. In such a model, every phase and task in the project moves sequentially; nothing can happen in parallel. Think: Gantt charts.Just as with the factory conveyor belt, one problem can hold up the entire project, and the customer only gets to see the finished product at the end.
The waterfall model doesn’t leave any room for changes or additions once development is underway. Sales reps and customers would bicker endlessly over the scope of the contract, agreeing on what would and would not be built. The end result: bloated project budgets and over-runs.
The Agile manifesto influenced new ways of software development
To define a better way for software development, 17 developers met in 2001 and came up with The Agile Manifesto. Its principles inspired teams everywhere to create new practices for their day-to-day work. Some of the most important ones:
- 🤖 Deliver working software to stakeholders often instead of rarely.
- ⚙️ Allow changes at any point in the project, not just at the start.
- ❤️ Make teams self-managed and multi-disciplinary, responsible for all aspects of their product, not just coding.
- 📅 Define clear meeting types and structures to eliminate the need for most other meetings.
These and other agile methods have greatly increased success rates in software development projects.
One of the best real-world examples of Agile's effectiveness is the turnaround of the FBI's Sentinel project.
Sentinel started in 2005 to consolidate all of the FBI's internal data and make it shareable across the organization. By 2010, using traditional software development methodologies, the project was a year past its original delivery date, only halfway finished, and close to blowing past its $451 million budget.
Then Chad Fulgham, the FBI's chief information officer (CIO), brought in Jeff Johnson, a Scrum expert. He reduced the project's team size by 80%, spent just $20 million, and finished the project within 18 months.
Many people who subscribe to the Agile methodology think of it as something that touches on many aspects of life. Much more than being a project management methodology, Agile is often discussed a mindset and a way of living – one that cuts through the bureaucracy of traditional teaming and makes work more meaningful, efficient, and empowering.
Why Agile is loathed
Certain Scrum Masters and consultants from the "The Agile-Industrial Complex" alienate developers with seemingly arbitrary Agile principles and processes presented as laws. The industry has become bloated with certifications and coaches proclaiming right and wrong ways of doing Agile instead of teaching its fundamentals so teams can adapt it to their specific needs.
Kurt Cagle, a data science consultant, argues such practices have damaged Agile’s reputation:
"The term Agile has been diluted almost to meaninglessness because of unrestrained marketing, and increasingly this is resulting in enterprises embracing what they believe is an Agile methodology that may actually be disastrous to them."
Agile can create confusion and frustration
When organizations misunderstand Agile, teams do daily standup meetings, write user stories, and call projects sprints without knowing why. Worse, managers let them go through these motions in addition to existing practices.
Working in an Agile way is meant to reduce bureaucracy by creating space for deep work. When applied incorrectly, it creates more bureaucracy that reduces productivity and increases frustration – the opposite of what Agile should achieve.
According to Max Andaker, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer (CPO) at CoScreen:
“Many organizations have gotten so lost in their pursuit of the ideal agile workflow and processes that they are missing the point of what the original manifesto and principles were trying to convey.”
Confusion around the terminology also doesn't help Agile's case: Agile, agile, Scrum, daily scrums, and daily standups, to name a few terms. When even experienced practitioners use different words for the same thing or the same word for different things, you can be sure everyone else gets confused, too.
A simple internet search doesn't always fix things. As Monica Georgieff, Agile coach and trainer at Agile Sherpas, told us:
"There's so much information on the internet about Agile right now that it's a bit chaotic to figure out what it is and what it isn't."
This confusion creates divisions among developers and between development teams and business folks because they misunderstand each other or no longer speak the same language.
Teams Apply Agile when they shouldn't
Agile is not a magic solution that solves every organizational problem. Yet, based on ignorance about Agile's strengths and weaknesses, its soaring popularity, and commercial interests from consultants and coaches, Agile often gets applied in cases where it shouldn't.
Here's why Agile doesn't work for some teams:
- 📅 Agile is deadline-averse. When there's external pressure to complete a specific thing at a particular time, Agile might not be the right choice. Planning an event is one such case or when filing legal or other compliance documents.
- 🗺️ Agile shuns predictability and rigidity. When projects recur and follow the same structure – think accounting, maintenance, and legal work – Agile isn't a great fit.
- 👨💻 Agile needs a welcoming host. Change-averse organizations shouldn't adopt Agile. When leaders refuse to support teams to become self-managed or ditch other meetings in favor of Agile ceremonies, an agile approach will just frustrate team members and fail.
Maarten Dalmijn, Serious Scrum ambassador, told us he sometimes doesn’t pick an agile approach for projects he’s involved in:
“There have been cases where I specifically decided to not work in an Agile way to achieve the best results. There isn't one size fits all, you need to pick the best approach given the context you're operating in. Agile is hot and popular, but that doesn't mean it is always the best solution."
Why Agile is lasting
Agile lets teams kick ass when they understand its principles and apply them in the right context. It works particularly well amidst rapidly changing circumstances and unpredictability – exactly what the future holds for most industries.
Agile facilitates a productive and motivating work environment
Agile frameworks like Scrum create a sustainable work rhythm. Instead of thinking, "I can sit back because the deadline is in six months," or being overwhelmed by the huge task ahead, you work toward smaller, shorter-term goals that prevent project stagnation and all-nighters at the end. You also have more time for deep work because meetings are fixed and take place at scheduled times, reducing ad hoc distractions.
These shorter, focused cycles also allow agile teams to iterate faster. They constantly ship working features, which keeps them close to the customer. As Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum and signatory of the Agile Manifesto, says, Scrum helps teams "do twice the work in half the time."
But it's not just about speed. When done right, Agile improves morale by encouraging people to take ownership and emphasizing the team as a unit instead of individual contributors working by themselves.
Agile is meant to change and adapt
Agile is... agile. Its principles and frameworks are flexible rather than rigid, resilient instead of fragile. These qualities give organizations and teams the ability to adapt and evolve their processes along with projects, customers, and the larger world.
For example, during sprint retrospectives—a meeting type in the Scrum framework—teams evolve by scrutinizing their own performance. Jordan Husney, CEO of Agile meeting platform Parabol, says:
“Adopting agile can feel worse before it feels better. Problems and tensions often become more visible, which can be uncomfortable for some teams. But when tensions are more visible, you have a better opportunity to solve them.”
Agile's own evolution is a testimony to this ability to change. There are now dozens of frameworks based on agile principles, and new ones appear every year. Some, like Scrum, Lean, or Kanban, are widely adopted. Others, like the so-called "Spotify Model" for doing Agile, are tailored to specific organizations. Fredrik Carleson, an IT professional says:
"The Spotify model was customized for Spotify. Organizations will have to find framework experts who can help create their own ‘pimped’ agile framework. There will be a need for many new frameworks."
Agile has also spread far beyond its software origins. National Public Radio uses it to create new programs, John Deere to develop machines, and Saab to make fighter jets. It's also used across disciplines like marketing, HR, and executive management. For example, in recent research by Agile Sherpas, 51% of marketing teams considered themselves agile.
Agile's concepts are immortal
Mike Loukides, vice president of content strategy at O'Reilly Media, offers a vision for Agile's future in The Death of Agile. He says we'll forget about it.
"Do you know what it would mean for Agile to succeed? We’d forget about it. We’d just do it. Frequent contact with customers, good in-person communications between team members, along with practices like source control and testing, would just be in the air, like our Wi-Fi networks. We wouldn’t agonize over those practices, or create rituals and ceremonies around them. They’d simply be what we do."
Despite the criticism, consultants, and incorrect implementations, agile processes crop up in all kinds of companies. Some teams use daily standups, short-iteration cycles, retrospectives, and sprints without knowing they originate from Agile-inspired frameworks.
More seasoned practitioners are evolving agile values and development processes into new frameworks more suitable for projects, circumstances, and challenges the existing approaches can't handle.
Eventually, we might forget about the name agile or call it something else, but its principles will live on.