What we mean when we talk about Agility?

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Autor: Agustin Villena

(Versión en español se encuentra en este enlace )

When a few days ago our mentor and friend Alistair Cockburn (finally!) came to Chile, he talked us about the famous meeting held in Snowbird in 2001 where the Manifesto was written and how the name “agile” was chosen between other terms like “adaptive”. When voting came, there was even a tie between both terms, but finally they preferred “agile”. A lot of time has passed since that meeting, and their proposal has had a great impact far beyond software development.

Although a “2.0” version of the manifesto has not been agreed, there are those of us who have felt the need to explain in simple terms and in updated form what we mean when we talk about “agile” or “agility”.

Alistair himself has proposed 'The Heart of Agile' as an essential explanation of agile that applies to all types of organizations, not just the software world.

Moreover, in this place at the south of the world, our team at LeanSight also has been developing over the years a definition of “Agility” of our own that we want to share with you.

Agile or Agility?

“Agile” usually refers to the body of values, principles and practices represented by methods such as Scrum, XP, DevOps, Lean Startup and many more. But it is not synonymous with “Agility”.

We know organizations in which we intuitively recognize “Agility”, but that they don´t apply an agile method A or B, and that may never have to do it. At the same time we know a lot of organizations that are full of agile methods, roles and practices but do not have Agility at all: they are still bellow the changing expectations of their customers, and wasting the human potential of its collaborators.

So, if is there no direct relationship between the use of Agile methods and achieving Agility, how can we explain what is the latter?

Agility as a required capacity in today’s world

We need a definition able to explain Agility as something observable in the organization that has it. Remember that, as we have observed, Agility is not guaranteed by the use of some specific practices or methods.

Intuitively, to have Agility is “to be able to adapt fast”, but, why would it be necessary today?

We have all noticed that things we took for granted have now been replaced or are being questioned. Uber threatening the profession of taxi driver, AirBnB to the hotel industry, Netflix to open and cable TV, etc. These are recognized cases of disruption in the services we consume. But this effect does not stop here, it is also affecting the world of work.

How many activities do you know that already have partial or total automated replacements? from the most mechanical ones, such as supermarket tellers, to those more complicated like university education or law? Think of the children who just entered to school. When they leave to the world of work they will have at their disposal work areas that have not yet been invented.

What can we conclude? That we are facing a world in great change and that uncertainty is the norm. And therefore, to have agility is needed to navigate it successfully.

But it is not enough just to adapt

Being able to adapt to uncertainty is almost mandatory in the current world, but we need something else. To just adapt is to act reactively, and always be behind the change. Therefore we have discovered that it is also necessary to propose. Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder explains “Antifragility” as the ability of a system to prosper in the face of uncertainty, which we can assimilate to the intuition expressed above of “being able to propose and adapt quickly”.

However, Taleb tells us that, there are some anti-fragile organizations that thrive in the face of uncertainty, but at the expense of others, like weapons factories that become rich in the event of war. And this did not fit with the history and ethos of the Agile movement.

Agility as being able to Humane Thriving in the face of uncertainty

And so we discover the last (for now) component for our definition of Agility: the focus for the people and by the people. Many of the organizations that have applied agile methods have ignored this last and crucial point: Agile delivers a powerful kit of values, principles and tools, to enable people to improve their day-to-day work and their capacity to deliver value to others by themselves. But, if those tools are imposed vertically, we wil only obtain a pale reflection of Agility. An Agile transformation that doesn’t gives people autonomy, and doesn’t allow them to unleash their full potential to learn, understand and create collaboratively.

A definition that will always be evolving

The Agile Manifesto starts with an ignored and yet fundamental phrase: “We are uncovering better ways… by doing it and helping others do it." We take it with out heart, therefore, this definition of Agility as “the organizational capacity to thrive humanly in the face of uncertainty” is also under permanent revision. However, it already makes us aware of the long road we have ahead to learn to be effective in achieving it in ourselves and cultivating it in other organizations. But now we have a true north that guide us far beyond specific methods or practices, and a long and exciting adventure in front of us.