gile is a highly confusing term because it refers to more than one thing. For business leaders wanting to embark on ‘Agile transformations’ this is problematic. To help clarify needs and intent, at Enfuse Group we think of ‘agile’ as having three distinct definitions with notable overlaps:
Agile Software Development
Agile Software Development was arguably the catalyst for the whole Agile movement. In 2001 a group of seventeen people came together at a ski lodge. They defined the Agile Manifesto for how software could be produced more effectively. Their output can be found here: https://agilemanifesto.org/. Essentially, Agile was about developing software in a customer-centric, collaborative, responsive and frequent manner. The likes of Scrum and Extreme Programming (both of which existed before 2001) are examples of software development frameworks that embody this definition of Agile.
Agile Software Development has been a big success. For many it is now considered the default best practice approach to developing software. Interestingly, many of the famous silicon valley success stories like Google and Facebook have not just used Agile for software development, but for how they operate in general. As companies who started out with software at their core, it makes sense that they extended the approach to how they did business in general. This is the second definition of Agile that we recognise – the use of Agile for enterprise change, not just software changes.
When you read the Agile Manifesto you can see how easily it can be adapted to not just being about software. The notion of packaging changes (not just software) into frequent and smaller releases makes sense. The call to be collaborative and to put the customer first is by no means software specific. Agile can be extended to the enterprise level, and this is what many people mean when they use the term Agile today.
Spotify famously published their Agile model a few years back to show how you can operate products in an Agile way. Agile was not simply used for software development, but for wider product improvements. Organisations are now emulating the Spotify model for their entire operating model, such as ING. Indeed, many organisations looking to become more digital view the Spotify model as the ideal template for extending Agile beyond software and to the enterprise level.
The word ‘agile’ existed in the English language before the Agile Manifesto was created in 2001. This sounds obvious, but is key to understanding our third definition.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines agile to mean:
1: marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace // an agile dancer
2: having a quick resourceful and adaptable character // an agile mind
Many business leaders refer to this meaning of ‘agile’ when they state a desire for their business to be more agile. These leaders may be less aware of Agile for software development and enterprise operations, and hence freely use the term ‘agile’ based on its original definition. They use ‘agile’ to articulate a need for businesses to be flexible, quick acting and adaptable.
To help distinguish this version from the other two already mentioned, we like to use the term ‘agility’. We also use a small ‘a’ as it isn’t a noun; it is a verb and/or adjective. In contrast, Agile for software development is the name of a specific approach, hence capitalisation is called for.
‘Agility’ is still undergoing further definition by business thought leaders. Exactly how agility is achieved in terms of operating models is open to debate. Countless bestsellers are being written about how to achieve agility, often agreeing and disagreeing with one another. Some align strongly with the enterprise Agile approach, indicating this is a good template for achieving agility and hence we may well see convergence between these two terms in the future. For now, however, it is safer to keep the two as distinct, but to note that there can be notable overlap.
The Three As coming together
Agile software development, enterprise Agile and agility are the three A's and there is clear overlap between them all. They are all about operating in a highly responsive, fast fashion. This is where the confusion comes in. Three people in a room can be talking about the need to be agile, but actually be each talking at cross purposes. One can be talking about software development, the other about applying Agile approaches to the wider business, and the third about how the business simply needs to find a way to be more responsive and innovative. Only by acknowledging these different interpretations, and clarifying what people really mean, can the conversation progress effectively. We find asking people to state their desired outcomes to be the best way to seek consensus and to help flush out the different definitions people have in mind.