Agility over agile, more than word play

Is it just me or is the world moving away from agile and towards agility?

That may sound like a silly question. I’m prepared to admit it come as much from what I want to happen as to what is happening. Perhaps it is confirmation bias, but it feels like there is a change in the air. It’s a change I’m all for – I was talking about the need for agility over agile over 10 years ago (Objective Agility).

It might seem like a small semantic change to go from “agile” to “agility” but it is a change from “doing agile” to “having agility.” It is a move from “means” to the “end”. From “the way of doing things” to the “outcome.” Rather than emphasis “the way people work” the emphasis is “what is the end result?”

That is a good thing. By definition agile methods, and agile frameworks (Scrum, SAFe, Kanban, even Xanpan) describe how to work. There is an assumption that if one works that way one will achieve agility. In reality there are many different routes to agility. Some look like Scrum, some like Kanban, others don’t. Some people find their own way to agility.

I always introduce agile by asking: “What do you want agile to do for you?” The agile toolkit can be used for many ends.

With agility the answers are pre-defined: agility is both ability to move fast but also the ability change direction and manoeuvre with haste. In order to do that information is needed (learning), and that information needs to be acted on (decision making) – feedback loops again. Maximising agility means pushing that learning and decision making down to the lowest level: giving the people who do the work authority and trusting them. This is where digital tools come in and is why digital transformation demand agility.

Agile Beyond Software

There are two forces driving this change. First off is the expansion of agile beyond software development and into many other fields. As I’ve said before: digital tools spread the agile virus.

As other fields – marketing, law, research, and more – adopt methods which were originally for software engineering some tools need changing. Sure, some tools work just the same – think daily stand-up meetings. Others need rethinking: test first thinking needs a little work when testing is not the norm. And some don’t work at all: Unit testing.

A couple of years ago I saw Scrum forced on people not in software. These people did not always work in teams, they time sliced between different activities and who had to handle a lot of unplanned, urgent, work. The emphasis was on “doing agile” rather than “being agile”. Despite some valiant work it was a mess.

As we apply agile thinking away from software we need to emphasise the outcome rather than the method.

Business Agility demands more

Second, talking about agility, and in particular business agility, puts the emphasis on the whole – the wider context. That is to say: you can have the most agile team ever but the wider organization can stunt agility. The wider organization also needs to hear customers and adjust efforts: budgets, portfolio, governance and other teams also need to work agile so the whole enterprise can have agility.


Yes: agility over agile might be semantics but it is an opportunity to change the emphasis:

  1. Prioritise outcomes over methods
  2. Seeking agility outside of technologists means embracing more variation in how teams work
  3. It is not enough for teams to be agile, the wider enterprise needs to challenge how it works

Finally, agility is not binary. One might work agile or might not work agile, but agility is measured on a scale. How much agility does your company have? – it might be zero, it might be 10, it can always go higher.

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What we can learn from Wildebeest about being agile

“Your only as young as the last time you changed your mind”

Timothy Leary

As the end of the year approaches I’m about to write-off all the blog entries I never wrote this year, all the ideas, notes and in a few cases complete entries which never made it to publication. As I described last year only a few blog ideas will be carried from 2022 to 2023. I’ll wipe the slate clean.

But as it happens this is a perfect example of something I’ve observed a lot of this year: how the past stops us form being agile. The baggage we carry from the past stops us from changing.

Think about it, if you want to be agile – in the original sense of the word, what do you need?

Fitness and more

Right off you need a certain fitness, you – human beings – need the ability to flexible your muscles, to move and to react. If your muscles are stiff and inflexible you can’t reacting. The same is true of teams and organizations need level of fitness in order to react. You need both the habits of reacting and the skills to react with.

But fitness isn’t enough, you also need to be aware of your environment: capable of detecting changes to start with, deciding to act and putting that decision into action. In an animal that means senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste) and a nervous system. An organization requires similar senses to watch competitors, technology changes, customer tastes and so on.

Organizations also requires a nervous system to communicate input from senses, translate it into action and communicate the action out. Unfortunately many fail, one department sees a new competitor but fails to communicate, and when it does people won’t listen, action falls down as people cling to the past ands existing plans.

The organization as an individual animal analogy breaks down because organizations have many decision makers – everyone decided for themselves how to react to new information and instructions. We might be better off thinking of a herd.

Recently I watched a wildlife programme were a herd of Wildebeest were attacked by lions. The herd needs collective agility, each member needs to be agile but they need to be able to act together and act cohesively with group agility.

Thats were things like agile practices and processes come in, team work too, and, yes, practice (training and rehearsals) so everyone knows how the herd will react. But agility isn’t just about out abilities and fitness. There are things that hold even the best teams back, and for lesser teams they make agility impossible.

Our teams and organizations are immobilised by the past: by the baggage we carry around.

Technical teams blame technical debt – a metaphor I dislike – but that is not the only form of debt.

As individuals we carry the debt of past experience: we remember when we were hurt, we remember when we took what we were told at face value (“This team is committed to high quality work”) and then criticised for the same thing (“I keep telling you, we don’t need perfect, only good enough”).

Organizations too are held back by organizational debt: sometimes actual monetary debt which incurs interest, or lender covenants which constrain action. Sometimes the debt is manifests as lack of trust – either between employees and employers, or companies and customers.

At a very basic level team backlogs are an example of the debt that prevents us being agile: the need to do backlog prevents teams from reacting – or if they do react, then not doing the backlog damages the trust they need.

And backlogs are just one, quite weak, form of promise that holds us back. Roadmaps and legal contracts are stronger. But breaking our promises reduces the trust we need. I didn’t say this was easy.

Then there is the problem of purpose: animals and herds exist to live, they aim to preserve life. Even though they may not admit it many companies are just the same, they aim to last as long as possible – even when they say “Increase earnings per share”. Then there are the many start-ups aim to sell out. Put that all together and the herd lacks common purpose, when attacked by a lion should you run or negotiate a higher price?

So why aren’t you more agile?

Are you fit enough? Are you exercising enough?
Is your team exercising together, training and rehearsing together so you can react effectively?
Are you carrying too many burdens? Technical debt? Excessive backlog? Too many promises?
Is your nervous system able to react? Or do you need to obtain too many agreements, sign-offs and authorisations before you can do anything?
Are you trusted to do the right thing? To react first and explain later?
And do you all share the ultimate goal?

Learning to be agile is the easy bit, I can teach you sprints, stand-ups, planning and stories in day. The difficult bit is unlearning: removing all the impediments, sorting out the debts, abandoning the old processes and learning to live in the now.

If agility is your future then don’t be scared of abandoning the past. In the words of John Cage: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

You can’t be agile if you are carrying a lot of baggage. Which is why next month I’ll write-off most of my unfinished blog posts.

Wildbeest image by Jasmine Nears, Creative Commons license (Wikicommons)

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