Questioning Agile

<Reposted from the LinkedIn “The Future is Agile” Series>

The other day I was asked:

“ What is this Agile thing about, but in a few words for neophytes like me”.

I get that request all the time. People from all industries who have had no brush with the concept and who have seen some of my articles and can see my borderline-obsessive passion when it gets mentioned want me to provide a Cliff notes version to understand what has me so invested.

Answering the request is not always the right thing do to as circumstances and context may be absent and I wouldn’t want to deter people from learning more because I chose a bad time to introduce anyone to the concept.

Not to mention before I can even give an intro I have to roll my eyes back and overcome my initial petulant reaction of “Oh come on! What is the world coming to if this consummate professional with a good head on their shoulders hasn’t even heard of Agile?!?” and remember that we all took different paths.

“So what is it?”

“Well, in short, it’s a way to do projects better in shorter time.”

“So project management.”

“Yes and no. What isn’t a project?”


“No, not only. It started there but these days it’s blissfully being used for most other functions of the business from marketing to ops and to management.”

“So anyone who has a business function should use this thing.”

“Anyone who has a goal and is meant to achieve it in a team”

“So if I work alone I can’t use it.”

“I bet if you work alone you’re basically a collection of multiple personalities doing different things as a team so no, you could still use it”

“So is this Scrum?”

“No. Well yes, that too. Scrum, Kanban, etc are all names given to incarnations of methodologies within what I would call the Agile philosophy.”

“Like Trello?”

“No. Trello, Jira and others are the tools used to have a record of what is happening within the process.”

“Like Lean and Six Sigma, are those still around?”

“Yes in a way “like” them in that they all require unprecedented flexibility of the mind.”

“So this is a new set of processes and tools.”

“NO! Not at all. That is what it is NOT. Or rather, those bits are part of it and you’ll find people religiously devoted to one or the other, but they aren’t what it’s all about. What it is all about is the core of the topic – while focusing on people and the way they interact – find a process that is nimble and flexible and allows the entire team to enthusiastically contribute by achieving slices of work within a certain amount of time towards a certain shared goal.”

“Wow ok that is… epic!”

“About that…”


“Nevermind, yes. Epic. It basically allows humans to collaborate more efficiently and see the results of their work in shorter spans of time allowing them to adapt the goals while keeping an eye on the purpose.”

“So like God intended “teamwork”.

“Ummm yeah…”

“So I don’t get it what is so different from how we used to do these things before?”

“Well, if you’re familiar with the way in which projects were being worked on before you’ll know that the waterfall way of sequentially doing things is rather rigid and take a long time. Over its course, goals and even purpose radically change which renders all outputs rather useless and leaves people feeling unfulfilled and initiatives transform into ghost towns.”

“Why wasn’t this a problem before?!?”

“It’s been a problem for a while – for instance, the Agile Manifesto, the first time a group of visionary software developers and others with a goal to achieve results faster formalized the topic in a document is 18 years old but the philosophy pre-dates it. In the grand scheme of things, the need for rapid iteration and innovation has only become an imperative when the speed and ability of technology and the demand from consumers for the outcomes of that technology far surpassed what could be delivered in a slow, step-by-step waterfall manner.”

“So this is to deliver technology faster to consumers?”

“YES! Or really anything else you have to deliver!” Faster and better.”

“Better how?”

“Well more innovative, leaner, more nimble as you have the luxury flexibility awards – that of being able to go back in and correct course, change, improve in small bite sizes.”

“So I don’t understand, why would anyone be against this then?”

“For many reasons. Chiefly it’s because people don’t like change and they have often invested time, money and certificates into the old way of work and this looks like an unnecessary departure that could well be a fad.”

“Is it?”

“No. This is the future. Fast forward and the new generations won’t even know what PRINCE was and will only learn about Waterfall as a history lesson filed under “Back in the day when technology and consumer expectation was slow enough that we could do things this way”.

“So you said this is not about the process, if some teams get some of these boards and start doing things this way they won’t have the results?”

“Not if they do what I call “Agile-by-numbers” – they need to individually all buy into it and change the way they think to accommodate the flexibility and the speed, become comfortable with rapid change, focus on the purpose, keep learning and collaborating while being open to be vulnerable and grow.”

“Seems easy enough!”

“Does it? It isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t comfortable.”

“So leaders need to tell people to do this?”

“No. Leaders need to 1. See the light themselves and 2. Show the light to each and every one of their people.”

“How do you know if someone needs to go Agile?”

“You ask if they need to go faster and deliver better results.”

“How do you know if they ARE Agile?”

“You ask them where they keep their To-Do lists.”

“This is awesome, you should talk to my partner, he loves process.”


“Wait, calm down, I mean he loves finding ways to make us improve and move faster and if that’s about going back to basis looking at the people then that’s what he should do”.

These days I have several of these conversations a week. I think of them as my charitable contribution to an imaginary “Turn the world Agile” cause and I know many of us spend a lot of non-tax-deductible time on this particular organization too. The Karma points should be redeemable in the form of a better future of work for our kids.

I typically end it by urging someone to try it for a month. Read a bit more – start at the manifesto and then transfer their team’s (or even their personal) action items into some form of a version of a board be it by sticking some post-its or starting a Trello board. Just for a month. Just to see. And keep their eyes firmly peeled on what it is that their teams experience. How their people feel, hear them out, learn with them, grow with them go back to the human basic need of working in a group and test this thing together. See if they’ll fall in love with rapid results they built together from the heart.

Over the years some have done so and have seen the “Agile light” and are today devout practitioners – that I’m very grateful for- and some scoff and carry on as they were but will one day read more, try it out and come around.

Hopefully not after everyone else around them has already done so and outperformed them into oblivion.

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