The difference between ‘doing’ agile and ‘being’ Agile

One does not have to go far to find companies struggling with realizing the anticipated benefits of agile delivery.  Go to a conference, meetup or even a networking event (whether the theme is agile or not) and you’re likely to hear statements like:

“We’re trying to do agile, but we’re not getting anywhere…”  or “We’ve been using Scrum for six months now and it seems that we’re still struggling with the same problems.  We can’t get anything done…”

From a systems view, these statements are not surprising at all.  In fact they are expected, depending on the organization and their approach to the principles and practices.  In simple terms they are expecting Agile (big A) results with an agile (little a) investment.  Let me explain the difference between the two.

  • Agile is a proper noun. A mindset, philosophy and approach.  You don’t do Agile, you become Agile over time by changing the way you approach work, people, problems etc.  It has more to do with who you are than what you do.  It is a journey, not a destination.  This is what delivers the much touted benefits
  • agile is an adjective.  It describes nouns (events, ceremonies, roles, etc) associated with things that result from an Agile mindset.   These things are done in support of becoming Agile.

The point is that a lot of companies believe that they can ‘do’ Scrum, or some other process and that will make them more collaborative, produce more value and achieve higher quality; just some of the benefits of an Agile mindset.  While adopting these practices can certainly help start the journey, it takes more than just training, understanding and following a set of practices to become Agile.   Agile is not something that is applied to a team, division or organization.   If you do agile things but don’t support them with an Agile mindset friction, frustration, confusion, waste etc. result.  (See “We’re trying to do agile, but we’re not getting anywhere…”)

It takes real change for most companies to become Agile.  Often times they don’t have an Agile mindset.  Their management, HR structure, physical work spaces, titles and sometimes even identity are rooted in the current mindset.  (Think about your organization and how important your title or HR code is to what you earn and do.)    Thus the ability to develop one is rooted in changing their culture.  This is more involved than just introducing an agile process like Scrum.

To address the question “Why we are struggling with agile?”  is usually best answered with the a conversation around “How do we become more Agile?”

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