What is agility? 

 21 February 2021

Agile is popping up in a variety of contexts and media today and has become hype. Many companies want to work agilely in order to become more efficient, resilient and flexible and to promote innovation. But is that the idea behind it?

Origin and history of agility

Working agilely is not that modern. The first agile ideas and approaches can be found as early as the 1950s and 1970s. At that time, the computer and software industry was still in its infancy. The agile movement really took off a good 20 years ago. Some software developers were dissatisfied with how projects were going and collectively thought about how they could do it better. The idea was to focus more on the result, the customer and his wishes. At this meeting, the "Manifesto for Agile Software Development" was created. As a compass of values, this redefined the weighting of aspects of software development. So to speak: both are important, but the left is more important to us.

  • Individuals and interactions are more important than processes and tools
  • Functioning software is more important than comprehensive documentation
  • Cooperation with the customer is more important than contract negotiation
  • Responding to change is more important than following a plan

This marked the beginning of a paradigm shift in software programming. Countless methods and tools were created to implement this set of values in daily work. Among the best known are Scrum, Kanban and Extreme Programming, which brought completely new ways of working into everyday project and company life. And not only in software development. Agile working has arrived in almost all areas today: agile marketing, agile controlling, agile logistics, the agile craft business, the agile school class, the agile family...

With all the progress, services, consultant products, certifications and new models emerged. And with it at least as many definitions of what agile actually means...

Why actually agility?

Before we venture into a concrete definition, we must first look at what the benefits of being agile are. Without question, social, economic and technological development has exploded in recent years and decades. Innovations and new achievements are coming hand in hand. Globalization, the Internet and the constant availability of information are accelerating this development even further.

Classic corporate and project procedures based on planning and optimization reach their limits here. In contrast to the past, a plan that has been meticulously worked out over a long period of time is already obsolete tomorrow. We live in the much-cited, so-called VUCA world. This is spelled out as volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Agile methods try to provide an answer to this by enabling us to navigate through this VUCA sea.

Definition: What is agility?

The crux of this definition is self-evident: it would be nice - but a method that helps us cope with variability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity cannot itself be a rigid procedure. Working agile is a holistic, systemic process. With a set of principles, values and a mindset to deal with uncertainty & co.

What are agile values? Agile values are all those that help us deal with VUCA. A few examples: Courage, openness, personal responsibility, transparency, communication, optimism, appreciation, ...

What is an agile mindset? An agile mindset is an attitude that lives these values every day, not only in day-to-day business, but - and especially - around it. And there is more to the agile mindset, for example:

  • To welcome change
  • Questioning the existing again and again
  • accept that being agile means ongoing adaptation and change
  • to act in a solution-oriented manner
  • maximise the possibilities for action

Consistently thought through to the end, agility is above all one thing: individual. To find one's own agile path, to find one's own answers to VUCA.

The values and mindset are lighthouses. They help navigate, but do not replace the work on deck.

What are Scrum, Kanban and Co?

Frameworks and methods like those used in Scrum or Kanban are an ideal start for the agile path. All these methods are proven best practices, i.e. they are derived from practice because they have worked for successful teams, projects and companies. And they can be experimented with yourself. The orientation on best practices offers a possible start to live agile values and thus to develop your own, individual agile mindset.

It is important to remember that these are best practices of others. Much more important are your own experiences, insights and experiences of trying out a specific procedure yourself as a team. What works is developed further, what does not work is changed or discarded.

This creates a custom-fit model, your own set of methods and tools for your own agile path.

What is agility not?

A bit of Scrum here, a foosball table in the break room there, and Casual Friday every two months. Then agile also works out. With this approach, it's challenging to get on a growing agile path. Detached, piecemeal activities unsurprisingly end up with eye-rolling and restlessness from those involved. Agile only shows its full potential when thinking holistically: People, methods, tools, environment and mindset - only when everything plays together in a flow does it result in leverage for true innovation. Only then does agility become the attitude of the team.

Application areas of agile methods

Even though agility originated in software development, it has long since evolved out of this area. Agile approaches can be applied in all contexts. They are not a method, but rather a way of thinking about work in a new and different way, for example: Logistics, insurance, banking, trades, medical technology, SMEs, startups, social institutions, families or scaling across corporations, etc.

The future of agile work

The boundaries are already blurred today. Many views of tomorrow's work share common values and a similar mindset. Whether they emerge as Agile, NewWork or the like. But the goal is the same for all of them: they seek to help us create a world of work and life that meets today's challenges. They also help us to remain capable of action and creative despite all the uncertainty. And this will become even more so in the future, encompassing all areas of life. Agility, like other disciplines, will become even more holistic and systemic. They will look at people in their entirety and in all their contexts. Thus, an attitude is developing with which the future can be shaped constructively. In companies, teams, but also in the thinking and actions of each individual.

And perhaps the term agility will then disappear from the vernacular again. At best because the way of working, living and thinking has become quite normal.