Don’t Write Agile off Just Yet

This year (2023), I’ve seen a particularly high number of “Agile is dead” posts in my LinkedIn feed. This sentiment has been triggered and reinforced by mass layoffs of Agile roles. Here is my response.

Part of the tension around Agile boils down to how we define it.

I’ve long defined Agile (with a capital A) as any way of working that is congruent with the spirit of the Agile Manifesto. That means it optimizes for four specific values: putting people first, adaptation, frequent value delivery, and collaboration between customers and doers.

In today’s business landscape, every company will readily say that two of these values — adaptation and frequent value delivery — are critical for business success. Companies also want to be more customer-focused. Being people-first is the trickiest one, but it’s certainly a lot more prevalent these days than when the Manifesto was written, almost 23 years ago.

If you define Agile by how it’s implemented — sprints, backlogs, standups, CI, etc. — these are now commonplace. Some companies use these tactics in a deliberate attempt to become Agile, others simply consider them modern development practices.

If the tactics are everywhere and companies are at least interested in the values, why the pervasive sentiment that Agile is dead? Maybe because of the following three pitfalls, which make it seem like “it doesn’t work”:

1. Organizations adopt practices, but the practices are only effective when executed with the mindset that gave rise to them. If an organization continues to espouse different values, beliefs, and principles, those so-called Agile practices produce non-Agile outcomes. Therefore, leaders must be intentional & explicit about the mindset they’d like their organization to exhibit, and to support its adoption. We’re still not seeing enough of that; the de-facto values in organizations haven’t quite caught up.

2. While each of the Agile values is a net-positive for a company’s success, the secret sauce is that Agile is based on those particular four values as a mutually amplifying set. Too many companies approach them as separate pieces.

3. Value delivery — from idea to production — occurs in a system. Trying to optimize one part (product, engineering, delivery, etc.) may not produce the desired effects on the whole. The Agile approach is designed for the entire system of value delivery, but companies still apply it mostly in the build part.

In organizations that continue to see Agile as a set of installable practices without the leadership, mindset, and system thinking that make them agile, its death is likely. However, in organizations that use Agile thinking as a deliberate and holistic strategy to defining, developing, and delivering meaningful products and services, it should continue thriving — no matter how it’s named.

(For a deeper dive: pitfall #1, pitfall #2, pitfall #3)


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