Agile process terms can be confusing—what exactly is a scrum master and why are "user stories" important?
But if you peel back the nomenclature, it all comes down to a dozen basic ideas expressed in the "12 Principles of Agile."
Created by a group of pioneering software developers looking for a better way to create software, "12 Principles" is a brief list of relatively simple and straightforward ideas that many, if not all, businesses can understand.
The principles sprang from the 2001 meeting at a Utah ski resort where agile development first took shape. The participants were 17 software development professionals aiming to hash out a different way to create software. And the meeting was an attempt to arrive at a consensus about that way.
—Kent McDonald, content curator, Agile Alliance
“There were a lot of things they didn't agree on," says Kent McDonald, content curator for Agile Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports agile process, values, principles and practices. “The principles were where they did agree."
The Agile Dozen Reinterpreted
Those dozen statements have become one of the most fundamental documents for communicating the agile mentality as it has expanded to influence project management, enterprise strategy, customer service and more.
Yet because of their software roots, some principles require interpretation to be useful in general business. The following are the original principles with interpretations for business owners wanting to bring an agile process to their company.
Principle 1: "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software."
According to McDonald, businesses can embody the first principle's mindset with an even simpler principle: “Deliver value through satisfying your customer's needs."
Principle 2: "Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage."
“If we were to revise this principle today, I believe it would be restated as, 'Always be open for negotiation, at the right time, regardless if it means rework of your deliverable,'" says CaSandra Minichiello, an agile consultant in Atlanta.
Principle 3: "Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale."
“Strive for short feedback cycles to aid the learning mentioned in [principle] #2," McDonald explains.
Principle 4: "Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project."
“Don't construct silos," McDonald urges. “Keep your teams cross functional."
Principle 5: "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."
McDonald says the essence of this principle is “pay attention to the people doing the work."
“Trust them," he adds. “Give them the environment and support they need."
Principle 6: "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation."
“This still holds true even today and not just the development team, but to any human," Minichiello says. “Even when geographically distributed, people should make use of video conferencing to conduct meetings."
Principle 7: "Working software is the primary measure of progress."
"Is your customer happy with your quality product or service?" Minichiello asks. “If so, nothing else matters. Don't waste time measuring things your customer is not concerned about.
“Remove as many layers of communication between you and the consumer of your service or product and interact often," she continues. “This will ensure you continue to collaborate on what's important."
Principle 8: "Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely."
“Keep a sustainable pace," McDonald explains. “Working overtime is not effective. People can't multitask. Instead of trying to do a bunch of things at once, focus on the most important things."
Principle 9: "Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility."
“Follow the appropriate practices for building your product or delivering your service," McDonald says. “Pick the ones that allow you to learn and adapt."
Principle 10: "Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential."
A key challenge of agile development, McDonald says, is deciding which work needs to be done and which work doesn't.
That said, “this one is appropriate as originally stated," McDonald says.
Principle 11: "The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams."
“Let the people who do the work figure out how they're going to do the work based on their knowledge and experience," McDonald elaborates.
Principle 12: "At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly."
“Use the short feedback cycles to reflect and adapt," McDonald summarizes.
Where Principles Hit Limits
As agile software development has been applied to other areas of business—and as the business world has evolved—some have found it required a degree of reinterpretation to remain relevant.
“The one that people struggle with the most is face-to-face communication," says Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, principal research lead for process and performance management at American Productivity & Quality Center, a Houston-based nonprofit best-practices research and benchmarking organization.
“I don't think anybody can argue that face-to-face is the best form of communication," Lyke-Ho-Gland continues. “But it's gotten harder as we have developed a diverse workforce spread out through the globe. You have to end up relying on technology."
Business owners pursuing an agile mindset for agile sake can also go astray.
“Embracing agile should not be the end goal," McDonald emphasizes. “If an organization cannot clearly express why they think they should embrace agile, they are setting themselves up for disappointment."
As one of the foundational documents for agile development, the 12 principles aren't likely to be rewritten.
“I think the core itself is going to stay the same," says Lyke-Ho-Gland. “How it's integrated with other approaches is the evolution you're going to see."
For those who want an even simpler understanding, the essence of being agile might boil down to figuring things out as you go rather than trying to plan everything in advance.
“The idea of learning and adapting to take advantage of what you learn is the crux of the matter," McDonald says.
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