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Agile practices endure and continue to adapt

As the 20th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto approaches, Agile practices remain vital to software development and are being adapted to critical business functions outside of IT.

The Agile Manifesto was published in 2001 by 17 authors who agreed that the software industry needed a paradigm shift in how to develop software, manage projects and enable self-organizing teams to succeed.

Today, it's hard to find an organization implementing software that isn't following some form of Agile development and Agile planning methods. There are top blogs that cover Agile practices, over 4,000 books on Agile project management, global conferences every month, 180+ courses on the online learning platform Udemy and 750+ Agile and scrum meetups. This wealth of resources helps everyone from experts to newbies learn, coach and succeed with Agile practices.

Some of the initial perceptions around Agile methodologies were that they only worked for small, centrally located teams, startups, teams working on B2C consumer-facing applications and applications that had few regulatory requirements. Today, these myths have primarily been proven false as large organizations and others in regulated industries have successfully adopted Agile.

You can also find Agile practices in areas outside of software development and information technology. Agile helps marketing teams run digital marketing campaigns and experiment with different tools to reach sales prospects. Human resources apply Agile in their recruitment, talent development, performance management and other functions. Even risk-averse finance and accounting teams recognize the need to evolve regimented approaches and apply more Agile practices.  

Agile is a personal journey

Agile practices, tools, frameworks, nomenclature and mindsets have evolved significantly over the last 20 years. While you can read the official history of the Agile Manifesto and review an Agile practice timeline, learning and applying Agile is highly personal. How serial entrepreneurs learn and implement Agile practices is very different from how enterprise Agile coaches lead transformation in large organizations, or how delivery managers at large systems integrators adjust to different Agile practices across multiple customers.

Harmeen Mehta, global CIO and head of digital at Indian telecom giant Bharti Airtel Ltd., talks about scaling digital transformation with Agile.

In other words, there are multiple ways to apply Agile -- even within its most common methodologies like Scrum and Kanban. There are many ways to scale Agile to multiple teams, including SAFe, LeSS and StarCIO; dozens of tools to manage Agile backlogs; essential choices on how to integrate Agile with the software development lifecycle (SDLC); vital decisions on becoming test-driven and automating testing; and fundamental practices to rationalize with Agile, including DevOps and data science.

Some aspects of Agile's history speak to the types of choices Agile leaders face when deciding what practices to adopt, when to introduce them and how best to implement in their organizations. 

  • Scrum's roots trace back to the years from 1993 to 1995 when Jeff Southerland and Ken Schwaber introduced it, while Kanban traces back to Taiichi Ohno's book published in 1978, Toyota Production System -- Beyond Large-Scale Production. Today, organizations decide whether to support Scrum, Kanban, other Agile methodologies or multiple methodologies -- and what aspects of each Agile practice to mature.

  • In Agile's early days, small teams could get away with whiteboards, index cards, sticky notes and spreadsheets to define requirements and track work in progress. Today, there are many Agile project management tools to consider, and more importantly, Agile leaders must consider how best to implement the organization's Agile practices with them.

  • Today, Agile leaders must consider what level of detail goes into a story card. Does the product owner write them, or are teams using business analysts to capture technical details? Are you organizing themes, epics and features or fewer levels of hierarchy? Are the portfolio management and reporting capabilities from the Agile tool sufficient, or is your organization scaling Agile with product and portfolio management tools or customizing reporting dashboards?

  • There is an ongoing debate on whether and how to estimate in Agile, with some of the early approaches presented by James Grenning's 2002 paper on planning poker and Mike Cohn's 2005 book on Agile Planning and Estimation. Today, tools support estimating in story points and effort hours, enable tracking applied hours and offer approaches to capturing business value.

  • As technology platforms evolve, so too has the debate on how to integrate software development practices with Agile. Extreme programming is one example where management and technical practices are highly intertwined. Today, DevOps practices, especially automating with continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD), using machine learning to monitor applications (AIOps) and applying Agile to manage technical debt are all examples of the intersections between Agile and technology best practices.

Agile's future in transforming the culture and enabling emerging technologies

I suspect that Agile practices, tools, frameworks and methodologies will continue to evolve over the next two decades. Agile leaders will debate how to empower self-organizing teams while still maintaining Agile practice standards. Agile practices that became a lot more design-driven when mobile development became strategic will evolve to better support applications developed for IoT and with machine learning capabilities. Finally, while applying Agile in regulated industries is better defined today, more industries will be regulated and require evolving Agile practices accordingly.

But the most significant opportunity over the next decade will be how organizations will use Agile, innovation and experimentation to transform the business and the culture. The transformation will happen as more technology groups align Agile and DevOps, invest in change management and take greater steps to drive agile collaboration.

Agile practices

Isaac Sacolick, president and CIO  of StarCIO, is the author of Driving Digital: The Leader's Guide to Business Transformation through Technology, which covers many practices that are critical to successful digital transformation programs, including Agile, DevOps and data science.

 For more thought leadership on Agile go to the Social, Agile, and Transformation website, where Sacolick offers advice on topics that include:

  • How to improve the culture of Agile DevOps teams;
  • How to capture and manage technical debt in Agile;
  • How AIOps can augment DevOps teams;
  • How (and why) to estimate in Agile; and
  • How StarCIO Agile planning drives results.

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