What is Agile?
In 2001, 17 people got together for a world-changing discussion about software development. They tried to find the common values and principles by which people could do better at the work of software development, which was in a terrible crisis (and still, to some extent is). They were successful in that they created a list of 4 values and 12 principles to guide people trying to find better ways of developing software: the Agile Manifesto was born.
Now, nearly 14 years later, Agile software development has become well-known (if not well-practiced) throughout the business world. In fact, the concepts of Agile software development have been extended through to many other fields as diverse as mining, church management, personal time management, and general corporate management. In the process, there has also been a growing recognition of the relationship between Agile values and principles and those of Lean thinking.
It is time to think about the concepts behind the values and principles. To acknowledge that the Agile Manifesto (for software development) can be re-stated at a much deeper level. To abstract Agile software development to Agile work in general. This is my goal over a series of essays about the Agile Manifesto.
Let’s start with an analysis of the values of the Agile Manifesto in relationship to the concept of “value”.
The Agile Manifesto Values
In the Agile Manifesto we can read the four values:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
While a few of these already are quite general, let’s dig a bit deeper by starting with the second value, “working software over comprehensive documentation”. What does this value really refer to? Why do we care about software over documentation. Why “working” vs. “comprehensive”? This is where Lean thinking can help us. The notion of “customer value-added” or just value added work is any work that changes the form, fit or function of that which you are delivering and simultaneously is work that a customer would pay for independently of all the other activities and results you may be spending time on. In this specific example of software and documentation, we can try to imagine what it would be like to say to a potential customer, “we can give you documentation for our software, but we won’t be able to give you the actual software itself… but we’d still like to be paid.” I’m sure it will be clear that it would be a very unusual customer who would agree to such a proposal. Thus, we see that the value of software development activities is in producing the software itself, and the documentation is by necessity of secondary importance.
But what if we are writing a book of fiction? Surely this is documentation! But, it is not. To make the analogy to the type of documentation mentioned in the Agile Manifesto, we would sell a book not just with the story itself, but also with in-depth instructions on how to use a book, how to read, how to interpret our feelings as we read, etc. And not just that, but we would also provide a set of notes to the publisher about exactly how we wrote the book: the time and place of each paragraph written, our original outlines, our research including much that was thrown away, all our conversations with people as we struggled to sort out various plot, character and setting elements, and possibly even all our edits that we had thrown away. This is the documentation to which, by analogy, the Agile Manifesto is referring.
Perhaps now we can look at a connection between the first value and the second value of the Manifesto: that documentation, tools and processes are all much of the same thing. They all belong to the same abstract category, namely, the means used to achieve a particular end. Of course, we all know that both the means and the ends are important, although we may not all agree on their relative importance. Nevertheless, we can probably agree on some extreme outliers that will help us come to the point I wish to make. For example, we can agree that killing someone merely to get to the front of the grocery store line and save a minute or two of time is an extreme case where the end clearly does not justify the means. Likewise, we can also agree that refusing honestly given help out of a desire for independence when it ends with the death of our children by starvation is putting means too much in the fore. Balance is required, therefore. The Agile Manifesto acknowledges this balance by its epilogue to the values, “That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.” The other two values of the Agile Manifesto which mention contract negotiation and following a plan are similarly pointing out activities of the means that are non-value added, in Lean terms.
The Agile Manifesto, is stating four values, is, quite directly, pointing to those things which in life are fundamentally of value as ends, not just as means. Individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration and responding to change, are all valuable. In order to abstract away from software, then, and create a more general statement of the nature of Agility, we need to explore the idea of value.
The Idea of Value
If we are in business, determining value, while possibly complicated, is not usually too obscure an effort. We look at exchanges of money to see where the “market” agrees there is value. The price of a product or service is only representative of value if someone will actually pay. Therefore, businesses look at return on investment, profit margins and the like to determine value. Similarly, in other types of markets such as the stock market, value is determined by an exchange of money. But underlying this exchange of money is a decision made by an individual human being (or several, or many) to refuse all the other potential uses of that money for the one specific use of making a particular purchase. This choice is based on all sorts of factors. In economics, we talk about these factors mostly in rational selfish terms: what sort of benefit does the purchaser get from the purchase. Factors such as risk, short-term vs. long-term, net present value, trade-offs, etc. certainly can play a role in such decisions. But in business (and in particular marketing and sales), we know that there are also lots of non-rational forces at work in deciding to spend money on a particular something. Value, therefore, has a great deal to do with how a particular person both feels and understands the current proposed “investment” opportunity.
Feeling and understanding arise from many specific factors, as discussed, but what can we say generally about feeling and understanding? They are internal states of a person’s mind (or heart, if you like). Those internal states have been the subject of much discussion in the realm of psychology, sociology, economics, and philosophy. But quite simply, those internal states are greatly determined by perception. How a person perceives a situation is the immediate general factor that determines those internal states. Of course, perception is a general term that includes sensory perception, but also the kinds of prejudices we have, the categories into which we place things conceptually, the internal language we use to describe things, and our existing emotional and mental constructs. So, fundamentally, value is perceived depending on all these perceptual factors.
The Agile Manifesto authors, therefore, had (and perhaps still have) a perception of value which places individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration and responding to change all in a position of more value than those other items. But this perception of value may not be in alignment with other people’s perception of value. Still, we can see already in 13 short years that there is broad, if not universal, agreement on these statements of value. Why is this? Why has Agile become so popular over a relatively sustained length of time with a trajectory that still seems to have it growing in popularity for years to come?
Agile values address a deep need in people in the software development discipline and indeed, by analogy, into much of the work world.
In my next essay on the Agile Manifesto, we will take a look in more depth at the first value of the Agile Manifesto: Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools.
Some links to commentary on the values of the Agile Manifesto while you wait for my next essay instalment!…