Edele Gormley

Agile vs. agile

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What’s the difference between “Agile” as an approach to delivering products or services to customers, vs. “agile” as an adjective, defined as being able to move quickly and easily?

While it’s true that the iterative approach to software and project delivery is very closely related to the adjective, there is a clear difference:

Agile is something we do or the way we do it (the approach) agile is who we are and informs our work every day (the adjective)

— Prosci Inc.

So why should we care about this distinction? Well, a lot of people tend to use them interchangeably, but they can exist separately. You can apply Agile practices without being agile (usually a bad sign), and similarly you can have an agile organisation without so much as a hint of Agile as an iterative approach. I believe it’s important for anyone practicing Change Management to be able to explain the difference, especially as applying Scrum in your engineering department doesn’t automatically make you an “agile organisation”. It’s easy to apply Agile practices in one team, but it takes time and effort to expand those practices across the entire organisation, but in doing so, you can help your organisation become more agile.

Truth is, you don’t have to apply Agile to have agility, but these days they’re often found together, both helping organisations to make quicker decisions and align their processes. If you consider the top 5 obstacles organisations have in attaining agility, you’ll quickly see how a set of values, principles and practices can be used as a toolkit to overcome these.

Top Obstacles to Organisational Agility
Credit: APQC report - Overcoming the Obstacles to Organizational Agility

When Agile as an approach to delivering value gets a bad name, it’s often due to misuse. Only adopting this way of working in a single department of your organisation is like continuously changing the wheels on your car and expecting it to drive faster without changing anything else. It takes time, effort, and probably some help in the form of Agile Coaches or Consultants to help spread these practices to other departments.

If you want to be an agile organisation, every team and department needs to feel empowered to make decisions and do the job they were hired for - and those decisions need to be transparent so those working in technology understand the thought process behind decisions made by marketing etc. There also needs to be a shift of focus from shareholder value (profit) to delighting your customers - profit isn’t the goal, but a natural result of delivering value to customers. The values of Agile help us to adopt this mindset, by putting the customer first, and being able to respond to changing needs, and the changing market.

By understanding the difference, we acknowledge that simply applying Agile doesn’t automatically make us agile, but it can help to get us there. At the root of it all, it’s about instilling a culture of embracing change throughout your entire organisation, which should be reflected in every decision you make, every feature you develop, and every piece of feedback you act on.