There is a common misconception that Agile can be distilled into a process. If I had a nickel for every time that I heard “the agile process”, I’d be living on a beach, sipping coconut water and alternating between naps and massages all day long. Much needed tropical visual aside, that’s obviously not happening… but also, Agile is NOT a process y’all!
Agile originated in the software development space at a time where Extreme programming, Feature Driven Development and Scrum were evolving from a very real business need to deliver higher quality work that could meet customer needs faster. The “faster” is in relation to the traditional waterfall way of working that would delay getting customer feedback until the very end of a large piece of work. The Agile Manifesto can be considered a result of all these frameworks and practices coming together, addressing the need to have a common set of values and principles guiding our work.
If we look at the Agile Manifesto today, we won’t see process anywhere. We won’t see practices anywhere. We won’t see frameworks anywhere. What we will see is a mindset with people first.
SO how did we get stuck in Agile being called a process?
To break this apart, we should go back to the beginning, long before Agile was a word that meant anything other than nimble and fast.
According to the recent Forbes articles, the dictum of Frederick Taylor (1911) that “the system must come first” (over people) and that human needs, desires and interests should be subordinated to a scientific system of management processes and methods has proven largely true for the past century. (Personally, I’m thrilled that we’re starting to recognize Taylorism in much of what is broken in the corporate world today!)
And indeed, we’ve seen the management trends emphasizing yet a different way of managing around people come and go. We’ve seen the laser like focus on processes, removing waste from the system, optimizing methods for increased productivity and efficiency prevail for as long as I can remember.
And because of this focus on improving processes and practices, we’ve also had a spotlight on various frameworks as a solution.
In my estimation, it is highly likely the Scrum* framework bears responsibility for the evolution in thinking of Agile as a process.
Scrum itself is based on a process. It’s an empirical process, where decisions are based on observation, learning and experimentation. It has three pillars, transparency, inspection and adaptation, and is really a scientific method of breaking things into smaller experiments, learning from them and adapting what you are doing and how you are doing it based on the outcomes.
When we teach Scrum certified offerings, we introduce the Agile Manifesto, and then jump into the scrum framework. We teach about the Scrum events (practices), specific accountabilities and artifacts. We teach about specific ways of doing things, each intentionally directed towards a specific outcome, oftentimes addressing a specific principle written in the Agile Manifesto. I would reword this sentence to say “It’s easy to understand why thenthese two get confused, and why people often say Agile when thinking of Scrum, but not knowing the difference or understanding the implications.
*In case there was any doubt, we at IncrementOne are big fans of the magic working in Scrum can unearth.
Agile itself is bigger than Scrum and the Manifesto
While the Agile Manifesto outlines an ethos for delivery of work rather than prescribed steps, there is uncertainty for complex organizations about how to make this work. This is where we will find the natural propensity to seek out defined frameworks and processes – we want to benefit from the promise of agile but face practical challenges for the best way to roll out the principles at scale.
Today, it can be said that Agile is an umbrella term for a philosophical approach to work, that prioritizes a set of values and principles that inherently put people first (whether the people doing the work, or the customer). Scrum is one of the many frameworks and methodologies that are folded under the umbrella of Agile, which will include Lean (building in quality and eliminating waste) and the Kanban Method (making things visible and reducing work in progress to name a few).
Separating the Agile mindset for a second, the frameworks and methodologies all share the similarity that they each address a way to get work done. They focus on the HOW, not the what, and when we talk about the how, we might trip over the word process. But if it’s not clear yet - Agile is not exactly, AND so much more than a process.
If you find yourself hearing the words Agile and process going together in one sentence in your organization, see if you can’t reframe the conversation to bring people back into it. It can help to recognize the limitations of methodologies and explore the philosophy and its application to your context today.
Going back to the ethos (or philosophical approach) that Agile can be surmised as being, consider whether your organization’s strategy, planning (roadmaps), leadership, culture and not least, organizational design and structuring support what you want to achieve. If you haven’t looked at how these interconnected elements either support (or complicate) the best of this mindset to develop, it’s time to do that now. It can also help to look at how your rewards system is set up to encourage learning and innovation, explore how your organizational design enables (or constrains) effective communication and collaboration, or unearth where exactly the sticky traps that hinder your value delivery and effectiveness lie.
And, if you find yourself needing a bit of support, we at IncrementOne can help. We offer Agile Leadership training that can bolster your abilities to have these conversations in an empowered manner. We also offer leadership consulting and coaching, where we can refresh alignment around what you are doing and the words you are using, review how the pieces of the puzzle support your ultimate objectives and help coach you in the steps to get there.
We’re ready when you are!