Defining ‘Agile’


There is a lot of use of the word agile in the organisational world. You can see it in job ads, see it in the descriptions of the way software is developed, and see it being used to describe entire workplaces and organisations. These are the four main ways I have seen it used over the past year:

  1. Agile software development
  2. Agile project management
  3. Agile workspaces
  4. Agile working

What are they? What do they have in common?

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of the word ‘Agile’.  The definition that we find is that the word is an adjective that means “able to move quickly and easily”. I think this definition is quite accurate for each of the four uses of the word I’ve already listed. In fact it is the part which binds them all despite their differences.

Here is a brief description of each of these four forms of Agile:

Agile Software Development

Agile software development followed the increase in the development of software, which initially started with traditional or waterfall type development methodologies. During the 1980s and 1990s a growing number of software engineers realized that there were better ways to deliver software. Instead of the process heavy typical waterfall project management approaches they were advocating a range of lightweight methodologies designed to get software developed in an iterative manner that focused on delivering continual value in highly changeable environments. They were originally called lightweight methodologies but at a seminal meeting they didn’t like the name ‘lightweight’ so used the term agile.

There are now a range of recognized Agile methodologies (Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming, Lean etc) and many hybrids of these.

For more information about the origins of agile software development I recommend checking out www.agilemanifesto.org and www.agilealliance.org  as beginning points.

Agile Project Management

Agile project management takes the key concepts from Agile software development and applies them to a broader range of projects, not just software development. It focuses on delivering requirements incrementally and iteratively. Project teams focus on continual improvement and are focused on adapting to changing requirements at any stage in the project. Agile project management uses many of the same Agile software development methodologies listed above.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in both the software development industry, and also the large construction industries in my project management career. Even though Agile project management is usually intended for the IT industry I can definitely see benefits for the traditional construction industries as well.

Agile Workspaces

An Agile workspace attempts to bring to the work area the key core principles of Agile software development or perhaps more specially the Agile Manifesto. There is a focus of flexibility and customization that allows team members or staff members to work collaboratively and openly. The intention is to provide an office space that is space efficient, productive, and vibrant, and one that promotes creativity and problem solving. It is in direct contrast to partitioned workspaces or open plan work spaces. There are defined areas suitable for different purposes and different working styles within an agile workspace.

The perfect synergy is intended to be teams using agile project management methodologies within an agile workspace.

Agile Working

Agile working takes the concept of agile to its broadest definition and intends to provide employees with a work environment in which they can work in the way that best suits them and the organizational goals of delivering value. The focus is on work outcomes, not the hours worked. The intention is to encourage people to work in their most creative productive manner and provide the best organizational and customer value. The aim of agile working is simply to create a more responsive, efficient and effective organization, which ultimately improves business performance and increases customer satisfaction

Here is a link to a great article on Agile working http://www.nhsemployers.org/-/media/Employers/Documents/SiteCollectionDocuments/Agile-Working-Guide.pdf?la=en&hash=C2F9D66C3C434D939B18DF1561D5AAE50250C0AD

My final word on one of the greatest changes about implementing any of these forms of Agile is to ensure that team members and/or staff are fully prepared for the change and supported throughout the transition as each of these forms of Agile requires a certain attitude and aptitude from team members and staff, and the organizational culture needs to truly reflect and support the principles of agile.