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Agility in Software Development

In this excerpt from his book, Jim Highsmith looks at agility in software development and its success in other fields such as manufacturing; and explores the concept of Agile Software Development Ecosystems.
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This chapter is from the book
Agility does not come in a can. One size does not fit all. There are no five common steps to achievement.
— Rick Dove,

If turbulence and turmoil define the problem, then agility is key to the solution.

We software developers and high-tech managers often look at ourselves as being in the forefront of innovation. Agile approaches appear, from inside our profession, to be the cutting edge. But if we look across the aisle into the realm of manufacturing, we might be considered on the trailing edge rather than the cutting edge. Witness, for example, the rise of lean manufacturing practices ignited by the Japanese automobile manufacturers and well documented in The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production (Womack, Jones, and Roos 1990).

Looking back nearly ten years, the foundation of what it means to be agile was described in Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations, by Steven Goldman, Roger Nagel, and Kenneth Preiss—published in 1995! Even though this book addresses manufacturing (the foreword is written by former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca), the agility issues it addresses are the same today as they were then.

Bob Charette, originator of Lean Development, stresses that the original concepts behind lean production in Japan have been somewhat blurred in the North American and European implementations, which focus on streamlining and cost control. The Japanese origins of lean production stressed the human and philosophical aspects of the approach. The translation from the Japanese concept to the word "lean" tends to leave out this human-centric flavor, partially, Bob says, because the main driver in U.S. businesses has been cost reduction. The Japanese word is better translated as "humanware." Whereas lean production and other lean derivatives have focused on reducing staff, the original Japanese concept has more of the Agile concept of working effectively with people.

The definition of agility offered in Agile Competitors remains as valid today for software development as it was ten years ago for manufacturing: "Agility . . . is a comprehensive response to the business challenges of profit-ing from rapidly changing, continually fragmenting, global markets for high-quality, high-performance, customer-configured goods and services." Agile Competitors considers the pursuit of agility to be a strategic issue for survival in today's market. Look at the following list, compiled by the authors, of forces that threaten companies:

  • Market fragmentation

  • Production to order in arbitrary lot sizes

  • Information capacity to treat masses of customers as individuals

  • Shrinking product lifetimes

  • Convergence of physical products and services

  • Global production networks

  • Simultaneous intercompany cooperation and competition

  • Distribution infrastructures for mass customization

  • Corporate reorganization frenzy

  • Pressure to internalize prevailing social values (Goldman, Nagel, and Preiss 1995)

Would a list drawn up today differ? Not by much. The Information Age economy has increased the pressures on these issues, but they are still critical to business success. And according to Agile Competitors, agility is the critical characteristic, the overarching skill required—of both corporations and individuals—to address these issues. If software development organizations—internal IT groups, systems integration consultants, and software product companies—are to fulfill their vision of helping business thrive in this Information Age, they must determine how to transform this vision of agility into reality.


To become Agile, most organizations will need to change their perspective. Peter Drucker, often characterized as the father of modern management theory, wrote an extensive article titled "Management's New Paradigms," which he introduces by saying:

Most of our assumptions about business, about technology and organizations are at least 50 years old. They have outlived their time. As a result, we are preaching, teaching, and practicing policies that are increasingly at odds with reality and therefore counterproductive (Drucker 1998).

Agility isn't a one-shot deal that can be checked off the organizational initiative list. Agility is a way of life, a constantly emerging and changing response to business turbulence. Critics may counter, "Agility is merely waiting for bad things to happen, then responding. It is a fancy name for lack of planning and ad hoc-ism." But Agile organizations still plan; they just understand the limits of planning. Although the defining issue of agility involves creating and responding to change, there are three other components that help define agility: nimbleness and improvisation, conformance to actual, and balancing flexibility and structure.

Creating and Responding to Change

Is agility merely a matter of reacting to stimuli, like an amoeba, or is it something more? My preferred definition of agility has two aspects:

Agility is the ability to both create and respond to change in order to profit in a turbulent business environment.

Agility is not merely reaction, but also action. First and foremost, Agile organizations create change, change that causes intense pressure on competitors. Creating change requires innovation, the ability to create new knowledge that provides business value. Second, Agile organizations have an ability to react, to respond quickly and effectively to both anticipated and unanticipated changes in the business environment.

Agility means being responsive or flexible within a defined context. Part of the innovative, or proactive, piece involves creating the right context—an adaptable business organization or an adaptable technology architecture, for example. Innovation is understanding that defined context and anticipating when it needs to be altered. The problem with many traditional software development and project management approaches is that they have too narrowly defined the context; that is, they've planned projects to a great level of task detail, leaving very little room for agility to actually happen.

"I think Agile is both being able to respond quickly (which means you have to know that you have to respond quickly—not an easy thing to do) as well as being able to anticipate when the rules or principles are changing or, more importantly, can be changed," says Bob. "Organizations that do this are often called "lucky"—in the right place at the right time. Some undoubtedly are, while a few have created the necessary infrastructure to exploit the change." Part of the cost of agility is mistakes, which are caused by having to make decisions in an environment of uncertainty. If we could wait to make product development decisions, they might be better ones; however, the delay could well obviate the need for the decision at all, because aggressive competitors may get their product to market while we dither. "This fact leads to a sort of organizational uncertainty principle: The faster your decision-making cycle, the less assurance you can have that you're making the best possible decision," says David Freedman (2000).

Nimbleness and Improvisation

In our volatile economy, companies need to enhance their "exploration" skills at every level of the organization. Good explorers are Agile explorers—they know how to juggle and improvise. Indiana Jones was a good explorer, somehow living through every outlandish adventure. Agility means quickness, lightness, and nimbleness—the ability to act rapidly, the ability to do the minimum necessary to get a job done, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Agility also requires innovation and creativity—the ability to envision new products and new ways of doing business. In particular, IT organizations have not done an adequate job of balancing the needs of exploration and optimization.

The actors in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon display incredible agility—running lightly along the tiniest tree branches and showing extraordinary dexterity in sword fighting. Beginning martial arts students are clumsy, not Agile. They become skilled, and Agile, from long hours of training and effective mentoring. Sometimes their drills are repetitive and prescriptive, but only as part of learning.

Agility also requires discipline and skill. A skilled software designer can be more Agile than a beginner because he or she has a better sense of quality. Beginners, with little sense of what is good and what is not, can just revolve in circles—lots of change but not much progress.

"I view the issue as one of almost 'disciplined messiness,'" remarked Bob in an email exchange. "You need to have a very good discipline in place to be able to respond in turbulent times, yet simultaneously know when to be 'undisciplined.' I view anticipation to be actively seeking situations where the generally accepted guiding rules or principles no longer apply, or where shortcuts are the least risky approach to take to gaining some objective. To be able to understand when the rules don't apply, you need to completely understand when they do." For example, Picasso had to become an accomplished fine arts painter to get to a point where he was able to move past that perception of "good art" and create abstract painting. He had to be skilled before he could be Agile.

Agile individuals can improvise, they know the rules and boundaries, but they also know when the problem at hand has moved into uncharted areas. They know how to extend their knowledge into unforeseen realms, to experiment, and to learn. When critical things need to get done, call on the great improvisers.

Improvisation makes great jazz bands. From a few key structural rules, jazz bands improvise extensively. Having a solid foundation enables their tremendous flexibility without allowing the music to degenerate into chaos. The proponents of business process reengineering and software engineering methodologies probably blanch at the thought that improvisation, rather than carefully articulated processes, is key to success. Yet in today's turbulent environment, staff members with good balancing, judging, and improvisational skills are truly invaluable.

Conformance to Actual

"OK," muse the critics, "but how do I control development projects in this environment?" There are two answers to this constant question. First, control focuses on boundaries and simple rules rather than prescriptive, detailed procedures and processes. The second aspect of control, though simple in concept, is completely foreign to many managers.

Agile projects are not controlled by conformance to plan but by conformance to business value.

"The major problem with planning," say Shona Brown and Kathleen Eisenhardt (1998), "is that plans are virtually always wrong." If we accept the notion of constant change and turbulence, then plans are still useful as guides, but not as control mechanisms. In high-change environments, plans—and the traditional contracts that are derived from plans—are worse than useless as control mechanisms because they tend to punish correct actions. If we deliver a working software product, with features our customers accept, at a high level of quality, within acceptable cost constraints, during the specified time-box, then we have delivered business value. Developers don't get to say, "This is valuable." Customers do. Every three to six weeks, customers tell developers that acceptable business value has been delivered—or not. If it hasn't, the project is cancelled or corrective action is taken. If it has, the project continues for another iterative cycle.

We may look at the plan and say, "Well, because we learned this and this and this during the iteration, we only got 23 of the 28 planned features done." That is useful information for planning our next iteration, but not for control. When we started the project three months ago, we only planned 18 features for this last cycle, and half the features we did deliver were different than the ones in the original plan. We accept that talented people, who are internally motivated, who must work in a volatile environment, who understand the product vision, will do the best they can do. If they don't conform to the plan, the plan was wrong. If they delivered business value, then whether the plan was "right" or not is immaterial. If they conformed to the plan and the customers aren't happy with the delivered business value, it doesn't matter that they conformed to the plan.

An entire generation of project managers has been taught, by leading project management authorities, to succeed at project management by conforming to carefully laid-out, detailed task plans. Conformance to plan means locking ourselves into a outdated, often irrelevant plan that some project manager cooked up in great haste (which, of course, precluded talking to developers) 18 months ago when the world was different. Conformance to plan may get a project manager brownie points with the tightly wound project management authorities, but it won't deliver business value in volatile, high-speed environments.

An exploration perspective contrasts with that of optimization. Take, for example, the use of schedule deadlines. While a schedule may appear to be a schedule, each perspective utilizes dates as a control mechanism in different ways. Optimization cultures use dates to predict and control—they view schedule as achievable, along with the other objectives, and see deviations from the plan as poor performance. Exploration cultures, however, view dates much differently. They basically see dates as a vehicle for managing uncertainty and thereby helping to make necessary scope, schedule, and cost tradeoffs. Exploration cultures, to be sure, use dates as performance targets, but the primary focus is bounding the uncertainty, not predicting dates.

Balancing Flexibility and Structure

It would be very easy to either "plan everything" or "plan nothing," but the really interesting question is how to juggle the two, how to define the context narrowly enough to get something meaningful done, but not so narrowly that we fail to learn and adapt as we go along. The fundamental issue remains one's primary perspective: to anticipate or to depend on resilience and responsiveness. Aaron Wildavsky, a social scientist, writes about this issue and offers an example of the difference between Silicon Valley and Boston. Basically, he believes, the reason Silicon Valley is the primary technology center of the world is that it depends on its resilience to be able to respond to rapid change, whereas the Boston crowd leans more heavily toward anticipation (Postrel 1998). Does that mean no one in Boston ever responds to change and no one in Silicon Valley ever plans? It's not so much either/or as it is a fundamental, underlying philosophy within which situations are juggled accordingly.

Being Agile means trusting in one's ability to respond more than trusting in one's ability to plan. Good explorers both anticipate when the rules of the game have changed (or are about to change)—that is, they define the context—and can also operate flexibly within a given rule set. Obviously, if the rule set itself is too prescriptive, it leaves no room for agility. Without some rule set, however, agility can become rudderless reaction.

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