If you are a learning and development (L&D) or human resources professional working for a company that has a lot of application development and project work (maybe in the finance, insurance, retail or transportation industry), there is a good chance you have heard the word “agile” thrown around. Whether a hiring manager demanded a certified Scrum master for a new position or you’ve been asked to source agile training for a major transformation project, there is a good chance you’ve been part of the agile revolution.

On the other hand, there is also a good chance no one has sat down and explained what agile means. If that is the case, this blog is for you.

A Way of Working

First of all, agile is not a methodology or framework. It is a way of working based on a core set of values and principles. Agile practices based on those values and principles are developed into “flavors,” such as Scrum, which is used to plan, develop and deliver software that meets users’ needs efficiently and effectively. Scrum uses practices that espouse agile values and principles like the daily scrum, sprints (two- to four-week working cycles), and the post-sprint retrospective (reviewing success and failure of the work cycle that was just completed). In the end, each flavor of agile and its practices must tie back to the core agile values and principles.

To support this foundational knowledge, it is important to break out some of the core principles that you can find in all flavors of agile. They represent a mindset shift from traditional management and leadership constructs:

  • Failure is good: An agile person sees failure as a pathway to success and an opportunity to learn quickly. If you are not failing, you are not doing.
  • Continuous improvement: Learning doesn’t happen at a specific point in time; it happens all the time. Each step of the way, the team is learning and adapting. This mindset is critical for handling the rapid pace of change and disruption.
  • Work versus Role: In agile, it is not about your position; it is about the work, which is performed as a team. The team understands each member’s strengths and weaknesses and leverages them to complete the task at hand.
  • Change is good: No one can see the future, but working in tighter cycles (iterations or sprints) helps you understand what will happen in the closer future, so you can better meet customer or client needs. Even in tight cycles, however, change happens. Successfully working through the change increases the probability that the work will be valued and used.

Self-organization and Autonomy

There are two practices or principles that are the bedrock of agile. One is self-organization, and the other autonomy. They are two sides of the same coin, but it is important to distinguish them.

Self-organization is about enabling teams to decide how they work. Typical organizational structures use a top/down approach to management: The manager tells the workers want to do, and the workers do it the way the manager wants them to. In this approach, the workers give up decision-making and responsibility to the manager and are not accountable for outcomes. With self-organization, on the other hand, the team makes decisions related to output and work, and the manager helps establish goals, coaches and supports the team, and provides the context, or vision, for their work.

Agile insists that the team and each member of the team take responsibility for what they do and how they do it and hold themselves accountable for outcomes. This approach is illustrated in the daily stand-up, where each team member shares what they did yesterday, what they are going to do today and if there are any issues they need help with. In a high-performance agile team, the group quickly spots the weak links who struggle with this level of autonomy and responsibility, and the team is responsible for providing coaching and obtaining leadership support to help them improve their performance.

In the majority of cases, when agile fails, the failure isn’t that the organization didn’t try to self-organize; it is that the organization couldn’t push autonomy and decision-making to the self-organized team. In these cases, the team was self-organized in name only, and management continued to make decisions. Without decision-making at the level of the work, teams lose their sense of ownership and responsibility, which reduces productivity and quality.

In the end, to understand agile, it’s helpful to look at it as a way of working that has a thin user guide. It mandates that the practitioners take responsibility for themselves and their work, it relishes the accomplishment of tasks, it requires drastic management and leadership changes, and it necessitates constant learning and practice.