What is Agile?

Agile is fast responsiveness in a complex environment. Agile stands on the shoulders of Lean.

Agile is fast responsiveness in complex environments

Agile is about being responsive in complex environments. Agile is about making a project or a company better positioned to move confidently in a complex and surprising environment. In the best case, it even uses the surprises to create a competitive advantage.

Complex means: there are surprises

Complex means that there are surprises. Complex environments exist in markets when, for example, new products, new technologies or new competitors suddenly appear, or because customer requirements suddenly change. Complex environments are often referred to as "VUCA environments." The term "VUCA" is the abbreviation for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

Agile is Lean

Agile stands on the shoulders of Lean. Just like Lean, it's about putting the customer first, eliminating waste, and constantly challenging yourself. 

Agile is Lean in complex environments

In addition to the existing ideas of Lean, Agile also includes the targeted handling of surprises. The early identification of surprises, which is particularly important in a VUCA environment, is supported by the Lean principle of constant questioning. Checking the environment again and again to see if anything has changed, if there is important new information. If there are any surprises or new information, it is a matter of checking the current path and the new information and, if sensible or necessary, readjusting the path and goal. 

Agile is a professional approach to complexity - not a lack of plan

Agile is about dealing with surprises in a professional, constructive and structured way. The opposite of Agile is to work haphazardly. The opposite of Agile is also closing your eyes to a complex environment and acting as if there are no surprises.

Agile is first and foremost effectiveness - and secondly efficiency

Meeting customer needs means working effectively, which means doing the right thing. That means delivering the right product for the customer, or building the right features into the software. It is of no use to the customer to run well in one direction if it is the wrong direction. The challenge of complex environments is that they are subject to constant change. With Agile, the focus is therefore on effectiveness: we constantly review our course to check whether we are on the right track. Implementing each step is then about efficiency.

Five principles make Agile more specific

Rapid responsiveness in a complex environment: this is quickly desired, but does not clarify the question: "how does it work"? Five principles provide guidelines for what Agile means:

  • Delivering value to the customer: means that we focus on delivering value to the customer. On the one hand, this means asking what the customer wants. On the other hand, it means questioning whether our work steps contribute to this.

  • Getting work flowing: means avoiding waiting time as one of the biggest causes of waste. Typical methods for avoiding this are introducing "pull" systems and the visualization of work within workflows, e.g. with Kanban.

  • Empowerment and self-management: means that teams decide for themselves who does what and when. In doing so, team members hold each other accountable. Empowerment and self-management bring decisions as close as possible to where the value-creating work is performed in order to be more responsive.

  • Transparency: means ensuring the self-management of teams is done openly based on facts. This means that everyone has the same information basis for their work and can make informed decisions.

  • Inspect and adapt: means that knowledge is gained from experience and that decisions are made on the basis of observations. To this end, results and ways of working, i.e. both effectiveness and efficiency, are regularly checked for their value and - where necessary - adjusted. This fifth principle states that it is not enough to be merely reactive, but that it is necessary for us to actually react. 

These five principles are an extension of the Lean principles (Value, Flow, Inspect, and Adapt). The principles are a first concretization of "Agile". Agile frameworks and methodologies provide patterns for how they can be implemented for specific use cases.

Agile is implemented through frameworks and methods

The implementation of "Agile" is done in practice using various agile methods and frameworks, all based on the above principles. These are e.g.

  • Scrum and Kanban - for agile teams - and

  • Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), LeSS or Scrum@Scale - for coordinating multiple agile teams.

This is the official definition of "Agile"

There is no one official definition of "Agile". And: you should not confuse "Agile" as a concept based on "Lean" with the dictionary term of "Agility" - which means something different. We have included in this page, in addition to basic principles of Lean, Scrum and Kanban also incorporate our 20 years of experience in the Agile environment. It doesn't get more official than that.

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Malte Foegen

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64293 Darmstadt


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