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What Kinds of Problems Does Agility Solve Best?

In recent years, software technology has moved from supporting business operations to becoming a critical component of business strategy. It drives new product development, from automobiles with hundreds of chips with embedded software to cellular phones and other wireless devices that are extending the definition of "distributed" systems.

Agile software development (ASD) is tuned to innovation and response—to creating new knowledge that delivers value to businesses and to responding quickly to competitive challenges. Rigorous software methodologies (RSMs) are useful, but for a set of problem domains that is shrinking. Many of the techniques from RSMs can be effectively employed by ASD approaches, but the framework and philosophy of the two are different. Agile approaches are best employed to explore new ground and to power teams for which innovation and creativity are paramount.

People have focused on the title rather than the subtitle of Kent Beck's groundbreaking book, Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change (Addison-Wesley, 2000, ISBN 0-201-61641-6). These individuals, especially managers in large organizations, are put off by the word extreme and its connotation of daredevils swooping in on their coding snowboards. Or, if they manage to force themselves past the word extreme, they land on the word programming and relegate the material to that "mechanical" stuff that the geeky people do. Although the words in Kent's book may talk about programming, and he may even advocate such extreme practices as testing one's own code, the strategic issue surrounding XP, and all other ASDEs, concerns embracing change.

Agile organizations create chaos for their competitors, first by creating change so fast that competitors are left gasping for breath, and second by responding quickly to competitors' attempts to change the market. Just imagine what it feels like to have a competitor with a new product-development cycle of 12 months to your 18; furthermore, every time you introduce a breakthrough feature, they match it in their next product release. They're attacking; you're always on the defensive. That's the essence of Agile organizations—creating change that you can live with and your competition can't. "The source of our competitiveness in this industry is our ability to manage in a chaotic environment," says Silicon Graphics' CEO Ed McCracken. "But it's more proactive than that. We actually help create chaos in the first place—that's what keeps a lot of potential competitors out." (See Marco Iansiti, Technology Integration: Making Critical Choices in a Dynamic World, Harvard Business School Press, 1997.)

Agile organizations don't just respond to change; they generate it!

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