Do Agile, Be Agile & Achieve Agility

In February 2001, 17 people met at a ski resort in the mountains of Utah for what turned out to be a turning point in the evolution of modern software development practices. This gathering brought together the parents of modern software development, from extreme programming and feature-driven development to scrum, to find common ground across their individual experiences and what worked well in software design practice. Over the two days, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development emerged.

While the group initially did not believe they could agree on anything substantive, they produced a set of values and principles on which they agreed. The manifesto’s guiding principles and cornerstone values, captured on two pages, has been a driving force for the agile movement for the last 20 years.

Adopting agile practices has been steady and embraced over the last 10 years, but scaling agile is recognized as challenging for large organizational transformations. This issue of scaling agile practices was a point of contention within the agile manifesto and raised deeply seated concerns that it would not be as effective at scale. In reality, the manifesto holds at scale, but some portions of it require additional emphasis.

The cultural shift to adopt agile practices requires a bit of a mental rewiring to rethink some habits and continually check your assumptions that are part of the organizational way of working. This is referred to as the lean-agile mindset, which helps individuals develop an awareness of their current fixed mindset and how to move to an agile growth mindset.

Many organizations start their agile journey with small steps by establishing a few teams in targeted areas of IT—with limited integration into a business function. The success of this early adopter approach is typically in the hands of your scrum master. Scaling up in this work can be just creating more scrum teams with good scrum masters managing the interdependence between agile teams. This approach can lead to a false sense of doing agile, where everyone has completed the training, organized themselves around agile ceremonies and delivered products successfully.

Consider the following statements:

  • Do you value lessons learned over accurate estimation of effort?
  • Do you value just the right amount of process over consistent mandated procedures across agile teams?
  • Do you value incremental functionality in the MVP over a functionally rich MVP?


If you favor the latter in these statements, this may suggest falling back on comfortable waterfall processes, which can undermine the journey toward an agile growth mindset. Many organizations can claim they do agile and successfully make it work for the product value streams they manage. In reality, doing agile may be enough, but you are probably not achieving the full potential of agile for your organization.

The move from doing agile to being agile is rooted in the beliefs behind the agile manifesto and how you leverage it to determine the action you take within the agile team. This may appear overly simplistic, but there can be external pressure to follow traditional waterfall processes, so testing against the manifesto can usually give you the way forward. However, while agile may get some traction in siloed teams, the enterprise philosophy and culture may be sluggish in adopting agile values. Here is where an agile coach comes into play.

This coach helps organizations navigate the complexity of adopting agile practices, along with the associated values and mindset. The coach can determine where you are in the agile journey and provide constructive mentoring to support agile growth. For some organizations on an agile journey, it may require unlearning some things and recalibrating your mindset to a new target state. Learning as you grow is all part of the process as the agile coach helps individuals, teams, management and business teams navigate over and around the speed bumps and potholes on the road to agile maturity. With the help of an experienced agile coach, organizations can bridge the gap between doing agile and being agile.

Even under the guidance of an agile coach, the transformation can face many challenges to maintain a being agile mindset and accelerate its adoption across the enterprise. According to the “2022 State of Agile Coaching Report,” changing culture and mindsets remains the most significant challenge to agile adoption, with organizational structure not suited to enabling agility and flow being a close second. Clearly, the organizational shift requires an outside-in approach, but your management teams in the middle need to lead the charge and are fundamental to the success of your agile transformation and desired business outcomes. People look to leadership at all levels to set the tone and direction, and with solid leadership setting an example, everyone can participate in transforming their way of working.

With the move from doing agile to being agile outlined, how do you achieve agility for the enterprise? It is not just a matter of adding more agile teams to gain some critical mass that suggests you have achieved agile at scale. It does require a transformation of the operating model across the business and IT to reconfigure what is essentially the central nervous system that binds the organization. Finance, HR, architecture, compliance, regulation, marketing and legal all have a part to play in the agile journey.

There does need to be some measure and reason for undertaking agile transformation. Without clear and compelling reasons and strong value measures, leadership can often focus on the one they can measure—cost—so meaningful metrics must support moving from being agile to achieving agility.