Home > Articles > Software Development & Management > Agile

Agile Software Development and the Three Faces of Simplicity

Simplicity should be simple, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, sometimes it’s downright difficult. Most of the agile approaches to project management and software development espouse a principle of minimalism: do less, do better, and do swarms. In this article, Jim Highsmith of the Cutter Consortium discusses these three dimensions of simplicity.
This article is provided courtesy of the Cutter Consortium.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

Agile methodologies supporters claim better quality, shorter schedules, and lower costs—but many managers are skeptical. What's the real story? Download a FREE copy of the expert report Fists are Flying: Agile Versus Heavy Methodologies, by Cutter Consortium.

Simplicity should be simple—shouldn't it? Unfortunately, simplicity isn't always simple, and sometimes it's down right difficult. Most of the agile approaches to project management and software development espouse a principle of simplicity or minimalism, from lean development's principle of minimalism to Crystal's call for eliminating embellishments to methodologies, to extreme programming's "do the simplest thing possible" (which includes the famous YAGNI acronym for "you aren't gonna need it"), to adaptive development's call for "a little bit less than just enough process."

But there are at least three dimensions, or faces, to simplicity: do less, do better, and do swarms. The last of which is often overlooked and underappreciated by a great number of people, both within and outside the agile community.

"Do less" means just that: do fewer activities, produce fewer documents, reduce management reports. Alistair Cockburn discusses methodology embellishments, those activities that creep into work processes because someone says, "this activity should help us deliver software of higher quality." Note the operative word is "should," because these are often activities that they have read about in a book, heard in a presentation, or been taught in a workshop—not things they have any actual experience doing. Embellishments are insidious; they often arise from a problem encountered, for which the new activity is intended to prevent a recurrence. Time and again, activities are added to prevent problems. Many, if not most, of these problems would be effectively resolved by a "fix on occurrence" strategy rather than adding overhead to every project.

"Do better" has a particular flavor, particularly when applied to design. Several years ago I participated in a data architecture project for a worldwide consumer goods company. A previous project had produced a data model that unfortunately looked much like the proverbial rat's nest. While complete, the model was not usable. Over a several-month project, the new team accumulated user stories related to the data, and the team constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed the data model. Slowly but surely, the model evolved into one that was more readable, more understandable, and simpler. In the end, the team began using the words "aesthetic" and "streamlined" to describe the model. The simpler and more straightforward the model became, the surer the team became that the design was correct.

XP's criteria for simple design are: runs all tests, no duplication, expresses every idea, and minimize elements (classes, methods). In this scenario, simple design (do better) may take considerable work—simple design often takes more time, not less. In the data model example, we produced a model but it took several months to turn a model into a simple model. Code designs evolve by an ongoing process of coding, testing, and refactoring (periodic redesign). Simple, aesthetic designs emerge from concentrated effort, including revisions. Simple designs don't mean less work, they mean more thinking.

If simple designs take additional work, why take the time? Simple: simple designs are easier to change. The prime rationale for agile processes is flexibility and adaptability to change, not necessarily pure delivery speed. In fact, agile processes produce results faster in high-change environments. Failure to "do better" results in difficult-to-change code, which then slows subsequent iterations.

"Do swarms" values simplicity for the complexity it generates. The concept of swarm intelligence comes from complexity theory: the right set of simple rules, applied within a group of highly interactive individuals, produces complex behaviors such as innovation and creativity. Jim Donehey, former CIO of Capital One, used four rules to help ensure everyone in his organization was working toward the same shared goals: always align IT activities with the business, use good economic judgment, be flexible, and have empathy for others in the organization (Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer, "Swarm Intelligence: A Whole New Way to Think About Business," Harvard Business Review, May 2001). Do these four rules constitute everything that Donehey's department needed to do? Of course not, but would a 400-page activity description get the job done? What Donehey wanted was bounded innovation—a department that thought for itself in a very volatile business environment, but also one that understood boundaries.

Similarly, the 12 practices of XP, the 9 principles of DSDM, or the 12 principles of lean development (all agile methods) do not constitute everything a development group should do. However, they do constitute the minimum set of rules that bound innovative and productive work. They create an environment of innovation and creativity by specifying a simple set of rules that generate complex behavior. XP, for example, doesn't prescribe configuration control; it assumes that when a team needs configuration control, it will figure out a minimum configuration control practice and use it. Agile methods don't attempt to describe "everything" that any development effort might need in thousands of pages of documentation, they describe a minimum set of activities that are needed to create swarm intelligence.

As Bonabeau and Meyer point out, developing a useful set of rules is not a trivial exercise. The rules can often be counterintuitive, and seemingly minor changes can have unforeseen results. This is one reason proponents of XP may seem to be overly adamant about not (or at least very carefully) altering XP practices. They know from long experience that the 12 practices reinforce each other in both direct and subtle ways. Changing one practice without understanding the interactions and the concepts of swarm intelligence can cause the complex XP system to react in unforeseen ways.

So simplicity is not simple. Furthermore, it extends far beyond the oft-maligned concept of reducing documentation. Those who think simplifying software development via agile processes refers only, or even primarily, to reducing documentation don't understand the three aspects of simplicity: do less, do better, do swarms.

—Jim Highsmith, Practice Director, Agile Project Management


The Agile Project Management Advisory Service is designed to help organizations implement software development practices that support responsiveness, adaptability, and innovation. Led by Jim Highsmith, author of the award-winning book Adaptive Software Development, the Cutter team of internationally recognized experts—including Alistair Cockburn and Ron Jeffries—provides timely, measured, and succinct information that focuses on the project management tools you can really use. Receive advice and guidance you can put into action immediately! For more information visit http://www.cutter.com/consortium/advisory_epm.html .

(c) 2002 Cutter Consortium. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction in any form, including forwarding, photocopying, faxing, and image scanning, is against the law.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020