Ask the Agile Pros: What is Agile?

Ben KaplanAgile, Corporate Innovation0 Comments

Hey Agile Pros,

I keep seeing Agile this and Agile that, but what exactly is Agile? Everything I read just confuses me more. There’s so much jargon and corporate speak that I don’t understand. What is Agile, and is it right for my company and my team?


A Total Agile Novice

I totally get where you’re coming from Novice. When I first started hearing “agile” all I could think about was mountain goats. It turns out the Agile I was hearing about has nothing to do with mountain goats.

Agile is a way of thinking about how we do work. Specifically it’s a way to think about how groups of people can work together to solve complex problems. Here’s how you “be Agile”; break down big, complex, complicated problems into small discrete tasks. Make that work visible (literally visible) so that work is transparent. Get feedback frequently. Adjust course as necessary.

There are a lot of ways to do all of those things! That’s one of the reasons why trying to figure out what Agile “is” leads you down a rabbit hole of jargon. When you google search Agile what you get are a bunch of people trying to answer the question of “how do you be Agile?” and not “what is Agile?” There are a lot of different ways to be Agile, but at its core Agile is thinking of work using these four components.

Let’s go through the four main components of Agile and use an example. A non-work related example even!

You and your spouse/significant other are throwing a dinner party. Let’s plan this elegant extravaganza.

The Dinner Party

Step 1: Breaking Down Complex Problems

What does it mean to break down complex problems?

Let’s tackle all the things that have to happen to make a successful dinner party. You need to send out invitations, which means you need to make a guest list, pick out invitations, and decide paper or email. You need to plan a menu, including dinner, hors d’ovours, and cocktails. Also you need to decorate the table, pick out music, and clean every inch of your house so people don’t see how you really live.

A lot of work goes into throwing a dinner party. Doing of all of the above seems daunting and overwhelming, doesn’t it? That’s why we’re going to break it down into smaller, discrete tasks. We’re going to make choices!

Let’s break out a few of the bigger themes from that list above, and let’s call them “stories”. Here are the stories I see:

  1. Guest List and Invitations — Who do we want at this party and how are we gonna get ‘em here?
  2. Food and Drink — What are we going to serve our guests?
  3. Getting the House Ready — What needs to be cleaned, rearranged, or dug out of a closet (or stuffed in a closet) for our house to look great the day of the party?

What stories you pick and how is a big part of Agile. Stories are how you frame your work before you start moving forward. They help you prioritize what’s important, and what you should focus on. I’m not going to break down each of these stories, but let’s choose one as an example.

Food and Drink — What are we going to serve our guests?

We can’t throw a dinner party without having dinner. Here are some of the steps that you’ll need to take in order to make this a reality. You need to:

  • Decide on the menu
  • Make a grocery list of things we’ll need for our dinner
  • Go grocery shopping
  • Decide who’s making the food (and when they’re making it)
  • Make the food

Each one of these tasks could be broken down further, and if we were actually planning this, we’d make them far more specific. The key is to break down a story until it’s all manageable pieces. You want to be able to look at your task list and say, “Yeah, I CAN do this!”

Step 2: Making Work Visible

Now that we’ve sorted through what needs to get done, we need to make sure that we stay on track and our accountable to our partner. When you have more than one person working on something, you need to know who’s doing what, and when it’s getting done.

In an Agile workplace, we do this by making our work visible! I mean this literally, but also there are a huge number of ways to do that. In our office we use post-it notes pinned on whiteboards, which is one small part of a larger way to do Agile called Scrum. I will assume you do not have a Scrum Board (as it is called) in your house. You can use a shared calendar with reminders, online products that mimic and build on the basics of a scrum board, whatever makes it easy for each of you to see what the other is working, has finished, and plans to do next.

Step 3: Get Feedback

Feedback reduces risk! The sooner you know you’re on the right track the better. In an agile workplace, we need to get feedback from both our teammates and our customers. At our fictional dinner party, this would mean that we should not only check in with our partner about what we want to cook, but also with the people who are going to eat the food we’re preparing. This can be as simple as shooting your friends a text with the proposed menu and asking whether or not this will work for them. Asking for feedback early on prevents catastrophes from happening — both in the office and in the kitchen.

Step 4: Adjust Course as Necessary

As we all know, the best laid plans can go awry all too easily. Agile does put a heavy focus on planning, but what makes agile work is being able to adjust your plans as necessary — usually after getting feeback.

So, let’s go back to our dinner party. You sent out the proposed menu, and half of your guests tell you that they have a gluten allergy. Uh oh. Looks like your spaghetti bolognese isn’t going to be the crowd pleaser you thought it would be. Now, you have some options:

  1. You can make your gluten filled dinner anyway even though you know half of your guests will be upset and probably not eat it.
  2. You can make something else. Sure, you’ll have to change your plans, but it’s better to do that now than to end up with a bunch of unhappy and hungry people at your home when you’re trying to have a good time together.

Agile is all about adjusting to change. In this situation, the feedback you received from your future guests showed that your original plan wasn’t going to work. Adjusting can be painful, but it’ll be better for you in the long run.

Now, I can’t tell you without knowing more about you and your team whether Agile is the right choice for you. However, implementing feedback and rapid iteration — like we described in our dinner party situation — probably won’t hurt you. If you want to learn more about Agile and how to actually implement it at your company, there’s a whole rabbit hole we can fall down. Agile for All and Scrum Alliance both have great, free resources with more details about how Agile works in practice. NewBoCo also offers introductory courses on Agile (with discounts for nonprofits and veterans!). You can also always reach out to us with your questions at We might put our answers in the next blog post! We’re here to help.

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