Why Agile is Successful

 Posted by on Oct 26, 2009  Add comments
Oct 262009

What makes agile development and project management successful? While there are many factors in agile’s success, four key ones are: a bias for action, a focus on customer value, the appeal to doers, and being principles based.

One of the most famous, or infamous, management books ever written was In Search of Excellence : Lessons from Americas Best Run Companies, by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman. This book, published in 1982, has been criticized in some circles because some of their designated “Best Run Companies” fell on hard times after the book’s publication. However, there are some ideas about what makes successful companies that can be compared with agile success factors.

“Do it, fix it, try it.” “The most important and visible outcropping of the action bias in excellent companies is their willingness to try things our, to experiment.” “They [most big institutions] seem to prefer analysis and debate to trying something out, and they are paralyzed by fear of failure, however small.” These are three quotes from In Search of Excellence. What strikes me about these quotes is their similarity to quotes someone in the agile community would make and that these were three quotes that were underlined in my 1982 copy of the book. While this was 10 years before I really began my agile transformation, these words must have stuck with me.

Agile teams are biased for action. They deliver in short iterations and focus on delivering value to the customer. They do documentation, plans, requirements, designs—but only enough to support quick action. They focus on experimentation (let’s do something), assessment (what did we learn), and adaptation from that learning.

A second trait of excellence companies was getting “close to the customer.” “In observing the excellent companies, and specifically the way they interact with customers, what we found most striking was the consistent presence of obsession. This characteristically occurred as a seemingly unjustified overcommitment to some form of quality, reliability, or service,” say Peters and Waterman.

When I look at this close to the customer focus I think of two traits of agile development: close, frequent (daily) collaboration between the development team and the customer team, and ‘obsession’ with testing. Test-driven development, Storytesting, and automated testing are all part of the agile emphasis on quality and the belief that this emphasis benefits not only the present (high-quality working software), but also the future (delivering future value).

A third trait of excellent companies was “productivity through people.” Peters and Waterman found that excellent companies focused on people first, process a distant second. This focused reversed in the 1990s to a focus of process over people during the re-engineering craze. The agile movement has reversed the trend again, back to people over process. The authors, discussing ex-chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt’s management philosophy, said he kept it simple—he believed that “people respond well to being treated as grownups.” Later in the chapter they remark, “There was hardly a more pervasive theme in the excellent companies that ‘respect for the individual’.

I think there are two reasons individuals at the developer, tester, analyst level support the agile movement, First, the agile movement is biased towards these doers—it gives them tools and practices that help them do their job simply and effectively without a lot of bureaucracy. Second, agile organizations treat people as grownups.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  3 Responses to “Why Agile is Successful”

  1. Great post Jim, thanks. I’ve seen teams highly desire to implement Agile practices for the very reasons that you list, but mainly because they have more control over the process, from estimating requirements to determining how best to go through a sprint. It also puts them in direct contact with the end users, who give them rapid feedback on whether or not they are going down the right road, and if they’ve delivered real value or not. I find that the feedback from users brings a satisfaction that has been missing from the lives of many developers. Thanks too for the reminder of the process re-engineering craze of the 90’s that took the focus off of the people. I’m very happy to see that we are back to moving in the right direction. Now we just have to get more people on the Agile bus.

  2. excellent post, thank you!

  3. My first question was, did you miss think? I have seen the management of a big “action oriented” company to make bad mistakes. Then I answered to myself, mostly from complexity perspective.

    Decision is not separate from action. Decision is a process intertwined with doing. Too much thinking beforehand is potentially just defense.

    There is no central consciousness, that would be able to think on periphery’s behalf. Only the periphery knows the local situation. So let the periphery act.

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