Agile: a common sense way of working, rebranded

This is the first of a series of blog posts introducing agile to people who haven’t worked in this way before. It’s based on my last three years of reading, learning and practising agile ways of working. I’m no expert, but I’ve got a few ideas that may help get you started.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

“Agile isn’t new, it’s just common sense rebranded.”

Martyn Puddephatt, Agile Consultant

There’s nothing new about agile, but it is in fashion right now. Most of the ideas will sound obvious and you’ll recognise them from successful work you’ve done in the past. But there’s now a big industry of agile techniques, training and consultancy that feed off how fashionable it is. Some suggest that agile is a thing you do and there’s a single right way of doing it.

Over time, I’ve come to think that agile is a thing that you are. It is a way of working, a mindset, not a methodology or a particular process. This mindset is a common-sense approach to work. It is descriptive, it doesn’t say what you should do, but rather what behaviours you should value.

When we work in an agile way, we recognise that these things are important:

  • Process, tools and governance
  • Writing things down
  • Negotiating
  • Following a plan

But we prioritise these things as being more important:

  • Empowering people with the right skills to work together
  • Delivering valuable work often
  • Collaborating
  • Responding to change

This is the Agile manifesto.

When working in an agile way, we make sure we have just enough of the less important things to get the job done. You still need a loose process to structure how you do things and a little governance to keep stakeholders calm. You’ll want to do some documentation explaining what you’ve done and a bit of planning to set the direction of the work. You’ll want to negotiate some objectives and measures of success. These things are still important, without them we would have chaos. But they should be what’s barely sufficient. Otherwise, they’ll distract you from getting the work done. Your definition of just enough or barely sufficient will depend on where you work, what you do and how comfortable people are with agile. Don’t be afraid to change it over time.

The hallmark of working in an agile way is the right people working together and making their own decisions to meet a defined objective. Teams are the unit of delivery. They should make as many decisions as they are comfortable with, whether that’s how they work, what tools they use or what to work on next. These should have boundaries; self-organisation is empowering, self-direction is anarchy. The team should have all the skills they need to do the work at hand. This may mean having different people in the team at different times or keeping some people close by for when you need them.

Delivering valuable work often is one of the big selling points of agile ways of working. Rather than waiting months or years for your benefits to arrive, you get them in weeks. Which means there’s plenty of time to change your mind or give some feedback to make the next piece of work even more valuable.

A team working in an agile way will actively invite people in to collaborate with them. They’ll be constantly talking to people who will be impacted by the project, involving them, letting them influence what will happen.

Responding to change is the definition of agile. Our base assumption when working in this way is that change will happen. That what we’re working on is inherently uncertain, unknown or unknowable. It doesn’t mean changing all the time — you’ll never get anything done. But it means expecting, planning for and welcoming change. A team working in an agile way will regularly take time to look back and review what has happened. They’ll consider what they’ve learnt and use that learning to decide what to do next.

The magic happens when you have the right team making decisions, delivering value often, collaborating widely and responding to change. As you build trust and deliver value, you’ll find you don’t need the plans, governance, processes, contracts and documentation as much as you used to. By taking a common-sense approach to how you work, you’ll be more successful more often.

This is part of a series of blog posts introducing agile to people who haven’t worked in this way before.

  1. Agile: a common sense way of working, rebranded
  2. How to work in an agile way

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Alex Shiell

Alex Shiell

Digital @RushmoorCouncil. Chair @MarlowCanoeClub. Views are my own.