My Definition Of Agile

My Definition of Agile

I have seen many people define “agile” (or, more often, “Agile” with a capital A). I wonder why this is such a common topic. I suspect it’s because we see such a wide range of definitions, and, by implication, a huge variety of imagined purposes for “Agile”.


What’s spurred me to offer my own definition, here? What purpose might this post serve?

I offer it to pique your interest. Maybe my definition is so different from yours that you might wonder why the gulf. And to serve as a future reference, in case someone might ask me “What do you mean by Agile?”.


Fundamentally, “Agile” is a label characterising a certain self-consistent collection of beliefs(1). Beliefs about what matters in being effective in developing software and software-intensive products(2). Each person, team and organisation will have their own collection of beliefs under the “Agile” label. Setting aside the varies differences between each of these sets, in toto these beliefs are sufficiently different from the norm (the collection of beliefs about work prevailing in most workplaces) to warrant a distinguishing label(3).

(1)This collection of beliefs generally includes some or all of the following memes:

  • Continuous Improvement.
  • Theory Y (McGregor).
  • People and their human relationships are the engine of productivity.
  • Diversity.
  • Learning.
  • Trust.
  • We can only know if we’ve built something that meets folks’ need by letting them experience it.
  • Early and frequent feedback (implies e.g. small units of work, high availability of customer proxies)
  • Iteration.
  • Collaborative knowledge work.
  • Inspect and adapt.
  • Eagerness to anticipate and embrace changes of direction.
  • Self-organisation.

(2)Although on the face of it Agile is about software development, that in itself is a tad misleading, as software development itself is really about creating experiences for folks, and, more fundamentally, about meeting folks’ emotional needs.

(3)In the Marshall Model, the collection of beliefs generically labelled “Agile” situates approximately at rightshifting index 1.2-1.8, and thus straddles the boundary, or transition zone, between the broader collections of beliefs labelled “Analytic” (roughly, 0.5-1.5) and “Synergistic” (roughly, 1.2-3.5).

In A Nutshell

In a nutshell:

“Agile labels a certain way of people relating to each other, rooted in a collection of more-or-less shared beliefs – beliefs more suited (than the norm) to effective collaborative knowledge work”

– Bob

  1. Interesting post. I’ve been probing round the edges of this for a while. and

    This is a lucid explanation and captures the point I was attempting to make, which is that Agile is a shared mental model of the reality of things. An ontology so to speak. Obviously putting boundaries around anything can lead to people arguing over the terms and meanings of terms within but by at least framing what agile is helps us to ask other more important questions. How do we know agile is working? What does it take to become agile? What comes after agile?

    In fact the last question “What comes after agile?” is what I find most intriguing. Not in a linear improvements sense but what Agile enables us to think of next. In the above you mention it as sitting at an intersection between Analytic and Synergistic models. Therefore, does this infer that agile is actually a necessary (mental) training space in order to allow us to move beyond agile?

    One question that is gnawing at me at the moment is whether agile is a response to conditions and that it is appropriate in some instances but not others. Which then makes the key thing to be able to recognise where we are then adapt our practice to fit.

    This obviously raises questions about sharing mental models, which can hold us back from adopting new ones as needed. This moving and shifting of perspective and belief is what could almost be called (excuse the term) a dance of the ontologies….

    Pardon the ramble but your post is strangely apposite as it has come at a time when I’m exploring lots of new ideas!

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comment.

      As you may have noticed, I share your intrigue. My focus for some time, and for the future, is on the question “After Agile (and DevOps). What now?” I note an uptick of interest from some organisations regarding this question. For me, Agile was only ever a stepping stone on the path towards more effective business, and more than that, towards a more fulfilling life for all concerned. In retrospect, it may have been necessary, in the same way it can sometimes be necessary to follow a path to a dead end and then backtrack in order to (ultimately) make progress towards escaping a maze. Put another way, Agile has told us as much (or more) about what NOT to do as what TO do.

      From the perspective of the Marshall Model, I posit much of Agile (the practices, mainly) is irrelevant in making the transition (swapping of memeplexes) from i.e. Analytic to Synergistic. Some of the core beliefs have much pertinence, though, including the discovery of the value and power of (intrinsic) discipline, and of its close cousin, intrinsic motivation.

      Could we effect the Analytic – Synergistic transition without going through Agile? I’d say, emphatically, yes. And maybe better for that avoidance. Few realise the nature of what they’re doing though, in moving – or attempting to move – on from the Analytic mindset.

      The Marshall Model, as a “Dreyfus for the Organisation” may help asses the appropriate kind of intervention. Assuming, of course, that one can place a client (organisation) on the Rightshifting axis.

      Happy to hear this post has been timely for you.

      – Bob

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