What is Agile

What is Agile and why should you care?


As leaders and managers, it’s helpful to understand what agile is and how it can benefit your organisation. So what exactly is agile? It’s a way to focus on delivering value to customers through collaboration and flexibility, rather than relying on rigid processes and plans.

Explaining the Agile Onion

The AWA Agile Onion is the best way to understand agile. The larger the circle of the onion, the more powerful but less apparent it is….

“…as you move upward from the tools and processes – bearing in mind this is not a linear journey, but iterative in nature, we make progress from Transactional to Transformational.”

Mary Laniyan
Enterprise Agile Coach

Tools at the centre are easy to spot, such as big boards with post-its or Jira instances. However, they are ineffective on their own.

Practices include Scrum, Kanban, XP, Story Writing and Mapping, Prioritising, Roadmap Creation and more. These practices are easy to understand but difficult to implement and derive value from.

Tools & practices can be incredibly useful, but they must be understood in the context of the agile mindset.

“The practices emerge from the conversations that people have, the data they interpret, the lessons they have received, and context in which they work.
The status quo happens when the same practices keep emerging because the mindset has not changed.

When we take practices that emerged somewhere else with the right mindset and were successful there, and then try and teach those elsewhere or adopt them somewhere else, we have missed the process of emergence and generally the practices are not fit for purpose or context… and then they don’t work.

…the mindset shift must come first.”

Simon Powers

Principles are things like completing all work started in a sprint or producing working and useful products every two weeks. Having these principles enables the team and organisation to optimise around them and make sound decisions.

Values are even more critical and intangible. Trust is the first step for any high-performing, collaborative team.* If trust isn’t fostered through values like respect and courage to speak out, high performance will remain elusive.

Finally, Mindset is the most challenging to see, yet the most powerful. You can’t teach it directly, and some people have it naturally. Gaining an agile mindset requires coaching to unlearn layers of command and control, Project Management skills and Theory X (the assumption that people dislike work and are reluctant to take responsibility, so must therefore be coerced, controlled, and directed).

What is the Agile Mindset?

The agile mindset, according to Simon Powers, is defined by 3 beliefs, as follows…

1. The complexity belief

Many of the challenges we face are complex adaptive problems, meaning that by trying to solve these, we change the nature of the problem itself.

Also important for the complexity belief, an attribute of complex adaptive problems is that the end solution is not predictable at the outset.

An example of a complex adaptive challenge might be raising a child. This is because every child is different and requires someone to sense and respond according to the child’s unique needs.

2. The people belief

Individuals are both independent from and dependent on their teams and organisations.

Trust and self-organisation can arise, given the right environment (safety, respect, diversity and inclusion) and a motivating purpose. 

For this to happen, it is necessary to treat everyone with unconditional positive regard.

To enable the best outcome, leaders can take on a coaching role, often called ‘servant leadership’. One example of a servant leader is Susan Wojcicki, who was CEO of YouTube. Wojcicki created an open communication and collaboration culture, encouraging employees to think outside the box and take risks. Another example might be Steve Jobs, who created a culture of innovation and creativity within Apple through his willingness to experiment.

3. The proactive belief

Proactivity in the relentless pursuit of improvement. This belief is derived from and a consequence of the other two beliefs.

To enable the other beliefs to deliver success, there must be a proactive effort to collect feedback on what works AND what does not, both with the deliverable and the process which delivers it. You must improve the process you are using as well as the product.

Find out more about the 3 beliefs that define the agile mindset, along with detailed examples and diagrams, over at our sister company, AWA Global

Why should leaders care about agile?

This approach allows teams to respond more effectively to changing requirements and customer needs. It promotes continuous improvement and adaptation, which results in faster time to market and better customer satisfaction.

Agile also emphasises collaboration and communication between team members, stakeholders, and customers. Teams are encouraged to work together closely, share knowledge and expertise, and engage in open and honest communication. This approach fosters a culture of trust and transparency, which is essential for effective teamwork and successful project delivery.

Agile is an organisational mindset shift, a change in culture from one state to another. It’s not easy. It takes time, and the journey is incremental. However, the cultural shift resulting from the mindset change is fundamental and crucial to to drive innovation, increase customer satisfaction, and deliver better outcomes for your organisation.

*according to The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team