Apr 072010

What is Agile? Is it a set of practices, a set of values, or a set of mind—or some combination of the three? Is it “Doing Agile” or “Being Agile?”

Is agile defined by a checklist of offered practices—the Nokia test for Scrum, or checking 9 of 12 practice boxes for XP?

Is agile a mindset, an amalgamation of adaptation, embracing change, transparency, collaboration, complex systems theory, or courage?

Is agile the frequent delivery of high quality customer value while effectively adapting to change, regardless of specific practices? (Ken Collier)

The right-brained and the left-brained are alive and well in this debate. Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) refers to this as L-directed thinking, “sequential, literal, functional, textual, and analytic,” versus R-directed thinking, “simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic.” This agile definition debate is a classic one that pits these two halves of ourselves against each other.

Is agile a management style, one that encourages self-organization, servant leadership, controlled chaos, or light-touch management?

Is agile a set of technical practices—iterative development, refactoring, coding standards, pair programming, or test-driven development?

Is agile a methodology or a set of core values and guiding principles?

There are many people and organizations who want a prescriptive, non-ambiguous definition of agile (or Scrum or XP or …). They are the L-directed thinkers, the ones who still want predictable plans and measures for the un-measurable. Conversely, there are those who insist that agile is a state of mind, a style of management, a wisp of content and a whisper of context.

And, there are those who are comfortable in-between—realizing that while at one level agile might be evaluated by a core set of practices, the essence of agile involves more philosophy than tutorial.

Is agile a set of rules established by some prescient guru, or an adaptive learning process that uses rules merely as a starting point?

Is agile a transcendent concept for bringing purpose, meaning, satisfaction, and fun to work?

The motto of the Scrum Alliance, “Transforming the World of Work,” speaks to agile’s wider purpose and meaning. In the final chapter of Adaptive Software Development I make two statements about work:

“People want to succeed; given the right environment, people motivate themselves to heroic achievements.

The right environment is one of adaptation through self-organization.”

In its search for purpose and meaning the core of agile has a secular spirituality feel to it. This core is why thousands upon thousands of individuals have signed the Agile Manifesto. It’s why hundreds of thousands around the world have embraced agile—even though they can’t quite define it.

Agile is one of those illusive things that the harder you try to grasp it, the more it slips through your fingers.

For me, the day we explicitly define agile, is the day it becomes sterile and lifeless.

For me, the day agile becomes whatever someone wants it to be, is the day it becomes useless.

For me, agile is a whole-minded philosophy, one that combines the left-brained and the right-brained—balancing on the precarious edge between the literal and the metaphysical, between performance and meaning. We need to revel in that balance and ambiguity, not try to define away its awe, grandeur, and paradox.


Jim Highsmith

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


  16 Responses to “The Illusive Definition of Agile”

  1. […] Pro Tweets New blog post: The Illusive Definition of Agile http://blog.cutter.com/2010/04/07/the-illusive-definition-of-agile/ cuttertweets – Wed 07 Apr 14:34 All Things […]

  2. As a new zealot, I can definitely relate to the “secular spiritual feel”. Scrum is almost a religion in that (for the office at least) it answers the basic question of “why are we here” (to produce maximum business value). It has a set of guidelines on how to live your (extreme programming) live with a daily congregation of all believers (the daily stand up). It also has a concept of good and evil: evil being things like technical debt, waste, and of course the waterfall approach, and good being things like, being a team player, being multi disciplinary, self organization etc.

  3. Great post. Have you read Pawel Brodzinski’s Agile Bullshit: You Can’t Do Agile, You Must Be Agile post in his The Carnival of Agile Bullshit series? It’s an interesting read, on the same topic.

    And the same conclusion can be reached : everybody’s view of what is agile are different. Like you said, this by itself is agile.

  4. I like this perspective – it helps distinguish between management (“the art of doing”) and leadership (“the art of being”). I also liken Agile to something that you “are”, not something that you “do”. I wrote about this a few years ago here: “The Zen of Agile Product Development”:



  5. Good post. One small nit: you’ve reversed the meanings of L-directed and R-directed thinking.


  6. Excellent dialog. We should also recognize that agile offers no guarantee that the right end product results from a given development effort We still see far too many teams, some agile, and with the highest levels of efficiency and output, fail to acheive the RIGHT product (from a business value perspective), even after “n” iterations.

    See IT Project Management Confidential at http://www.cutter.com/content/project/fulltext/updates/2009/apmu0924.html

  7. […] algún momento esto decante en algo que todos podamos usar. La verdad, después de leer el post de Jim Highsmith tengo mis serias […]

  8. Back in 1984, Ballantine Books published “Whole Brain Thinking – Working From Both Sides of the Brain to Achieve Peak Job Performance” by Jacquelyn Wonder & Priscilla Donovan. I so lamented the loss of my original copy during a move that one of my daughters found a copy and gave it to me as a Christmas present in 1988. What a joy to have this back in my library! In this seminal work, one of my favorite quotes by one of the authors was: “After testing more than 300 managers, I’ve discovered that the developmental, flexible and participative manager uses a whole-brain approach, shifting left and focusing on the task when needed – as when there are time pressures – and shifting right when an employee needs coaching or counseling or when engaging in a brainstorming session. No matter what his natural preference, the most effective leader is able to shift to the appropriate mode of the task at hand.” I’ve been an advocate for such hefty items as CMM (yes, before CMMI), ISO in it’s various permutations, Software Quality Assurance (back when it meant “Assurance”, not testing), Cost of (Poor) Quality and so forth. Now, after many, many years watching waterfall processes frustrate just about everyone, I’ve signed the Manifesto & adopted “little a” Agile as my next love (after God, my spouse and our dog, of course). Jim, I applaud your approach and, although my applause and $6.50 will get you a Starbucks whatchamacallit, encourage you to continue to spread the gospel.

  9. […] Jim’s entire article here. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="The Illusive Definition of Agile"; […]

  10. The definition of Agile is only Ellusive to those who are not agile.
    To use a food analogy, cooks look for recipes to follow, chefs create new recipes constantly. Agile teams are more like chefs than cooks.

  11. avatar

    Huet, I don’t agree. This piece was aimed directly at those who profess to be agile, especially those who approach agility in a prescriptive way.

  12. Hi Jim,

    Thoughtful inputs, thank you!

    Just wonder why the title has ‘illusive’ in it, should read ‘elusive’, is’nt it?

    Cheers and regards,

  13. […] The second key term is “adaptability.” Agile teams give up a lot of upfront design planning in favor of adapting and changing to unforeseen events. The team will make estimations based on experience, but in the end everyone on the team needs to be flexible and adapt to the “unknown unknowns.” […]

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