Why be afraid of the word Agile?

Words were created to inform and communicate. How precise words are is what helps people to have cleaner and more complex communication. Agile is a word that says a lot these days. Why be afraid of the word Agile?

I am not afraid of the word Agile with capital A. Or with lowercase a.

But it seems part of the world is. In some corporate spaces where I have been, the new fashion is to say "we are nimble". No more "we are agile", or "Agile Center of Excellence", or Agile communities of practice, but departments with names such as "Ways of Working". Somehow all to avoid the word agile, capital or lower case. Funny things is: people seem to want to get dissociated from the word, while at the same time applying the principles and reaching for that transformative mindset.

The word agile got hammered up so much that now it gives some people hives. I get it. But to me, what I see in those organizations is the fear of yet another failed transformation. For decades the leadership in many big company apply methods for improvement. Six-Sigma, TQM, PDCA, Lean Enterprise, Lean Startup... and now Agile. And because each of them failed to reap the benefits advertised in full, there is then an executive leadership layer that need to find a new name or a new approach.

I would argue those "failures" took place not because of any of the methods, but because of the lack of commitment to taking a leap into cultural transformation and organization redesign. Instead, they could have been operating in the true spirit of Agile: reflecting on what has been working, what has not been working and how to move forward. At regular intervals. No need to shame a name or run away from it. It is not the name you use that will do anything.

What is in a word

In all my pitches when consulting I use the word and quite honestly I resort to the dictionary: flexible, adaptive, dexterous. Think about that.

The word came first, not the movement. The folks who wrote the Agile Manifesto selected that word because of its meaning. It was not a new term coined. What was new was the thinking. And it's because of that piece that more often than not we refer to Agile with capital A. To make sure that on top of gaining adaptability and flexibility you are also sticking to certain fundamentals.

A company can achieve some more flexibility by laying off a significant part of their workforce. They can produce cheaper by hiring cheap workforce. They can achieve faster delivery times by delivering products half-tested. They can also do all that by pursuing Lean thinking and focusing on the reduction of waste to the decimal parts.

So you see, you can be agile without being Agile. I'm more interested in the second though!

What is in the fundamentals

I am of the opinion though that there is no escaping Agile. Mostly because how it was conceived and later evolved, Agile is about people and change. With 7 billion individuals on this planet AND counting, and change being the norm and faster and faster in our lives, you tell me if Agile has its place or not.

I am definitely not afraid to use the original nomenclature. I am proud to say I am and have been for years an Agile Coach. I look into the 4 values from the manifesto and find them very current, very avant-garde even!

People and Interactions
Working Software
Customer Collaboration
Responding to Change

As you can see, Agile is therefore about people, about learning, about moving forward and making progress. Techniques, though, have evolved. The dialogue has evolved. The concerns are different now than 21+ years ago when the movement of Agility started. And that is so because those who started more than 10 years ago... evolved their thinking. They started with User Stories to be closer to the client in the late 1990's. Today they are concerned with OKRs. I am excited to think what's next!

If you are interested in the conversation on Agile change in perspective, I wrote a blog post about it a while back. But yes, Agile is evolving, in an Agile way, as it's only to be expected.

Agile is not the objective. Or is it?

I know that amidst all this battle of Agile versus agile there is also the conversation on Agile not being the end goal when companies attempt to transform. Indeed, it is not. The transformation is the journey. Agile is the means. There is no end.

Agile is not the objective if you are considering that a company needs to adopt User Stories or TDD. But Agile is still the objective if you are saying: hey, we want to collaborate directly and wholeheartedly with our customers. Calling every 2 weeks a sprint is not a transformative objective. But planning and adjusting in iterations, as short as they may be for you and your teams and your company so that you can capitalize on the learning faster should be a more than noble objective. And that is Agile.

Quite honestly, for me, the fear of the word Agile and standing behind it proudly is beyond a conversation of nomenclature. It's a conversation about understanding a system of thoughts that can positively influence ways of working in a supercharged way. So when there is this fear, I believe there is no understanding.

And that's where we all come in, Agile Coaches, and our importance is quite fundamental. Because to help individuals and teams achieve the second part of the equation we actually need to know the first. In order to reap the benefits of wonderful principles and values, you do need to know the techniques as well. And conversely, we need to be prepared to abstract and help individuals and teams to also be able to figure out new tools and techniques on their own, considering the values and principles.

If you change the value system from Agile to something else, you remove my ability to help for the most part. You see, there is a choice made in there in the flavor of transformation superpowers we choose. I chose Agile. if I join a company right now that is redoing their organizational processes utilizing Lean Six-Sigma, I am at loss. I cannot help. I don't know the philosophy beyond the surface, I do not know any technique, I would not even know where to start. How about you?

So although Agile keeps evolving, it is still supported by its values. And I myself borrow from many other philosophies. But at some point, even to be "without recipe" you need to ground your knowledge somewhere. I know where I did ground mine.

That's why I say for Agile Coaches and other Agile Leaders: Agile is a word we like, Agile is the flavor we use and Agile is the knowledge we have and the means we utilize to support transforming organizations.

Why be afraid of the word Agile? Are you?


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