“Agile” versus “agile”

There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about whether something or other is really Agile, and what that means. Here’s my take on how to sort that out.

Growing up, I lived in a city called Grand Rapids. As you’d expect, there’s a river running through it. Does the river actually have rapids, and if so, are they truly grand? Do other rivers have rapids more rapid, or perhaps more grand? Those questions are interesting, but from the perspective of the name, it doesn’t matter. A long time ago, somebody thought that was a good name for the place, and it stuck.

Capital-A Agile

A decade ago and more, a bunch of people were working on new software processes. They were very different than what had come before, but they all had something in common. It was hard to put a finger on exactly what that was, but eventually they got together and came up with four value statements and twelve principles. And they came up with a single word: Agile. As in “Agile Manifesto” and “Agile Software Development”.

Was this perfect? No. Was it meant to explain everything about software development for all time? No. Was it a software development process on its own? Definitely not. But it was a declaration of common purpose, a list of things they could agree on.

That’s what capital-A Agile is: a bunch of people seeing that they had something in common, and attempting to say what that common thing was. They gave it a name and a partial definition. And most importantly, they formed a community that is still working out what that means and how best to do it.

Small-a agile

It’s important to note that they weren’t saying that they had an exclusive lock on agility, or even what made software development agile. As with the naming of Grand Rapids, they were pointing at a particular spot in the landscape of ideas and naming it. The word agile has a variety of meanings, and there are a lot of aspects to software development to which you could apply those meanings. They weren’t trying to lay claim to agility as a whole, any more than Grand Rapids is claiming all the rapids in the world, especially the grand ones.

That also means that there are plenty of ways to develop software that aren’t Agile. After all, software got made long before the Agile Manifesto was written. And there are surely ways of being agile that aren’t included in either the Manifesto or in the current practices of the Agile community. Heck, that’s part of why we get together every year, and talk so extensively on line. Processes based on continuous improvement gives you a real taste for continuously improving that process.

Saying “that’s not Agile”

So given this, what does it mean when somebody says “that’s not Agile”? To me, it just means that the thing they’re pointing at is a different spot in the landscape of ideas.

Some people get upset when they hear that, because they believe they’re doing well at making software, or because they think they’re being pretty small-a agile. They may or may not be right, but that doesn’t matter. If people in the Agile community say that something isn’t Agile, then it probably isn’t, the same way the city of Grand Rapids gets to decide where the city limits are.

If it bothers you to get told that something isn’t Agile, you have three basic choices:

  • Find out more about what we mean about Agile. We’re generally a friendly bunch, glad to show you around. Join a mailing list, come to an event, or even ask in the comment box below.
  • Persuade us we’re wrong. If Agile is the city we’ve built on the landscape of ideas, it’s a city that’s grown a lot over the years. It in effect started with a number of different little towns growing together. More recently came Lean, but these days it’s getting hard to even tell where the boundaries used to be. We’re very open to new construction, and your idea might be the next big development.
  • Start your own thing. Agile may be the big thing of the moment, but it will eventually be as obsolete as the cavalry charge. Just because we say that something isn’t Agile doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea. If you’re sure of yourself, do what the Agile founders did: stake out your own territory in the landscape of ideas and give it a name.

Regardless, there’s no need to get upset. Having different approaches or coming from different schools of thought doesn’t mean we don’t share the same goals in the end.


  1. Mike Bria:

    Well said Bill.


  2. Jurgen Appelo:

    “If people in the Agile community say that something isn’t Agile, then it probably isn’t, the same way the city of Grand Rapids gets to decide where the city limits are.”

    This is where your analogy breaks. What if the people *within* Grand Rapids disagree on the details? Who can claim senior citizenship over the other citizens?

    The 17 signatories of the Agile Manifesto themselves would never be able to agree on the details of agile. That’s why they only talked about principles, not practices. XP is a Jeffries/Beck thing. The others have little to do with that. Cockburn, for example, doesn’t fully agree with Beck.

    So what gives some agilists the right to say that the practices I have are not agile enough?

    See: The Decline and Fall of Agilists

  3. Just My Thoughts:

    agile != Agile…

    This has bothering me for a quite a while, now: people confusing the name “Agile” with the dictionary definition……

  4. William Pietri:

    Thanks for the reply, Jurgen.

    From your focus on one narrow bit, I’m not sure you saw the broader point I’m making. Let me know if that’s not the case.

    Addressing your comment: Citizens disagree all the time. That’s why we have politics. But almost any political system will give the same answer when most people agree. In this particular case, when Ron says you can’t do Agile without refactoring, you’ll have a hard time finding long-time residents who disagree.

    Back to the broad point: I still think you don’t quite get what they’re saying, or why they’re saying it. Over the last few years, “doing agile” has become a popular trend. Sadly, a lot of people are doing something that those of us who have been on this for a while wouldn’t call capital-A Agile. It’s important to us to make the distinction because a) we wouldn’t want them to fail based on a misunderstanding, and b) we don’t want to take the blame when various pseudo-Agile efforts fail.

    If you’re happy with your process, you should certainly stick with it. It doesn’t matter whether Ron Jeffries likes it or not. If you don’t mind the confusion, you can even call it “agile” if you like. But you shouldn’t call it “Agile” unless you mean that thing that the Agile Manifesto people were referring to and that the Agile community is still working out today.

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  6. Ted Young:

    This discussion feels a lot like the “what is good design?” question. Once you start drawing lines, someone’s gonna find themselves on the other side of the line. That’s why I find myself saying that we don’t do Agile, we do XP plus some other Scrum-like practices. Then there’s no question about whether we’re “doing it right”.

  7. Lisa Crispin:

    I love your post! It’s a nice distillation of the “what is agile/Agile” discussion, and you make some excellent points.

    I generally agree with what you said, but my hope has always been that someday all or most software development teams use Agile values and principles because it’s a really good way to deliver good software with high business value, and it doesn’t have a name at all -it’s just how you develop software.

    Some practices used by agile teams are becoming pretty mainstream. Lots of teams that don’t call themselves agile or Agile use CI, for example. Maybe the values and principles behind the Manifesto will spread as well?

  8. Jacob Karma:

    Well written. I feel that Agile is being somewhat watered-down by those who misrepresent it as you described. When Scrum becomes more widely practiced (as I tend to think it will), it’d take a real drongo to confuse it with the rugby term..

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