When Is “agile” Not “Agile”? Clearing Up The Confusion


Anyone involved in project management will be familiar with the term “Agile”. It is front and centre of many a project manager’s arsenal when it comes to managing projects that require some degree of flexibility. Additionally, it helps to promote collaboration and achieve optimal stakeholder satisfaction. Used by many project managers, Agile is a framework that has consistently been celebrated for its success within not only the software industry it was designed for, but in many other types of business projects.

However, as the concept of Agile has permeated various industries, there has become some confusion over the term. There is, from a quick Google search, much confusion between Agile as a methodology and agile as an adjective. This article aims to explain the difference between the two and how confusing one with another can be problematic for even the most experienced project manager.

Note: To help differentiate between the two within this article, we have capitalised Agile as the project management process, while the lowercase agile will refer to the adjective.

What is Agile?

Agile as a project management framework that emerged in the early 2000s. It was described as being fundamentally distinct from the traditional linear approaches to project management such as the Waterfall model, for example. When the Agile manifesto was published in 2001 by a group of software developers, this had a knock-on effect in other industries too. It emphasised the importance of individuals and interactions over processes and tools, promoting adaptability and speed of change as being vital for project success and has now been adopted by many other industries. There are various Agile methodologies that have been developed such as Lean, Scrum and Kanban, to help ensure Agile as a project management framework allows for iterative development of responsiveness to changes that occur within the project. This can apply to changes in scope, budget or timeframe, for example.

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What is agile?

The adjective agile describes the ability to move quickly and easily. It is derived from the Latin word “agilis”. In essence, it means ‘able to move quickly and easily’. A broad description of the word in business could relate to an organisation’s ability to respond swiftly to changes in the external environment. It can be applied to teams, individuals and even organisations as a whole. An agile business can be understood as one that has a capacity for adaptability and speed of change and growth.

Why the confusion?

As well as their shared phrasing, Agile and agile overlap in their conceptual basis. Both terms have connotations of responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability. However, while the adjective agile is a trait that can be applied across various contexts, Agile as a project management framework is a formalised set of principles and practices aimed at improving project management.

The problem occurs when individuals that are unfamiliar with the methodologies of project management interpret an Agile framework as simply “being agile”. This can mean that the adoption of Agile practices is only undertaken on a superficial basis. Without a deep understanding of the principles of Agile as a framework, or an expectation for an Agile project to focus only on speed and adaptability, without regard to the structure, this can lead to less than perfect results.

The confusion between the terms does more than just complicate discussions around project management, however. It also sets an unrealistic expectation for what an Agile methodology can achieve. Therefore, it’s crucial for professionals in the field to properly articulate the differences to stakeholders who may have less understanding of the framework. Doing so means that when they advocate for an Agile approach to a project, stakeholders will understand that this means more than just the ability to move quickly and easily on the brief.

The impact of confusion on projects

The detrimental impact of confusion between the terms agile and Agile can affect many areas of project execution. It can also impact the engagement of stakeholders and damage the organisational culture of a business. Below, we explain further some consequences of confusing agile with Agile.

Business misinterpretation

If a business leader or even team members misconstrue Agile as simply being flexible and speedy, this can lead to a misguided approach to Agile methodologies. While an organisation might claim to be using Agile methodologies, by introducing sprints, or stand ups, without adopting the core principles of Agile as a project management framework, their attempts may well be ineffective.

If this happens, going through the motions of Agile practices can, from the outside observer, be contributing to our project. However, missing out the aspects of continuous improvement, adaptability, and customer-centric development embedded within the ethos of an Agile framework may mean the results are not as expected. This can also result in scope creep, and delayed timescales.

Challenges with communication

One of the cornerstones of Agile methodologies, fostering effective communication is vital in helping stakeholders understand project goals and progress. Failing to adopt the true nature and benefits of Agile practices, may mean stakeholders have preconceived ideas that “agile” simply means fast and flexible. This can lead to unrealistic expectations and heavy pressure on teams.

A failure to adopt the true methodologies of Agile can therefore cause problems with stakeholder engagement and erode trust in the project team.

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Project delivery implications

If a project manager fails to adopt the principles of Agile, and there is a misunderstanding, that speed should be prioritised over substance, this can lead to teams being entangled in a vicious cycle of short-term planning and reactive decision-making. By adopting the values of a truly Agile methodology, a project team can more easily respond to change, for long-term value creation, and focus on the iterative feedback-driven processes that lead to better customer and stakeholder experience.

How confusing Agile with agile could damage a project

To put this into context, let us give some examples of how a misunderstanding between Agile and agile can cause damage to a project and a project manager’s reputation.

Case 1: Imagine a large corporation embarks upon a transformation of their organisation with a goal of improving the time it takes to develop a product.

Management introduces Kanban boards and Scrum ceremonies across the organisation. However, it does not invest in the development of cultural change and the comprehensive training required to support the Agile values it expects the company to embody. This results in many employees becoming confused about the purpose and practices of Agile. Therefore, they will only adopt the terminology superficially without transforming their approach and processes. This results in projects being continually delayed, and the end result is that the product development productivity does not meet the targets the corporation intended it to.

Case 2: Imagine a software development project in which the brief demanded it be “as agile as possible”. Having not been guided on what Agile meant as a methodology, the team assumed they could mix Agile practices with their previously adopted Waterfall approach, which resulted in confusion over priorities, expectations and the processes themselves. The project then struggled, with frequent changes of direction, scope creep and a lack of coherent vision as to the end goal. This led to dissatisfied stakeholders and a project team that suffered damage to its morale.

Clarifying Agile – What an organisation needs to succeed

Organisations that wish to adopt Agile methodologies must take a multilateral approach to ensure that they are not simply using the term “agile” as a replacement for responsiveness.

  1. Educational – The cornerstone of demystifying Agile methodologies is in education. You must ensure that everyone involved in the organisation understands the distinction between being agile and implementing Agile practices. This can be done by investing in comprehensive training programs that emphasise the mindset and cultural change necessary for Agile to be truly adopted. Certified courses and regular workshops to drive home these methodologies can help to reinforce the concepts of practices you want to be part of your organisation.
  2. Communication – Stakeholder engagement sessions can help to make Agile practices clearer. This can have the end result of ensuring that expectations are aligned between the project team and stakeholders alike. Using visual aids and examples may be one way in which you can define Agile methodologies and move the conversation away from agile as an adjective. However, it is also essential to avoid jargon or overly technical language when explaining such concepts to those unfamiliar with project management.
  3. Definition – If you intend to implement Agile methodologies within your organisation, it is vital to ensure that Agile principles are discussed with team members and stakeholders alike. This can help ensure there is a shared understanding of the core values and practices you will be undertaking. It may be necessary to explicitly address the distinction between the general concept of agility and the methodologies encompassed by Agile project management.
  4. Combating misinformation – If you want to combat any misinformation that already exists within your teams and stakeholders, there are several ways in which you can do so. For example, developing Agile literacy is crucial to ensuring everybody is on the same page. Identify and empower people within teams that can lead by example and advocate for the correct application of Agile methodologies. This can help to bridge gaps in understanding and practice, which will trickle down your team. You can also make learning resources available, whether this is through your company intranet, allowing team members to take online courses or use interactive learning platforms. You should check project management learning platforms and courses to ensure that they are accurate and relevant.
  5. Harnessing resources – Using the right resources, tools and courses can help play a significant role in clarifying the difference between agile and Agile. It is worth directing team members and stakeholders to authoritative sources on Agile methodologies. There, they can learn from experts on information, guidelines, and case studies that allow them to gain a deeper understanding. Furthermore, Agile software tools can help to support the true methodologies that underpin this framework. There are tools that help with visualising workflows and managing backlogs that are user-friendly and underpinned by Agile frameworks. Some of these tools can be tailored to the specific context and needs of the organisation, which may help to bridge the gap between project management principles, and the day-to-day workings of an organisation.
  6.  Creating an Agile culture -In order to create an organisation that embodies Agile project management principles in the way they are meant to be embodied is perhaps the most vital way in which you can help to reduce confusion and misinformation. Some tips to build Agile methodologies into your culture include:
  7. Leadership support – People follow what they see to be successful. Therefore, ensuring a leadership team demonstrates a commitment to Agile values and principles will set a precedent for the entire organisation. If workers know they have leadership’s active support and involvement, this can help foster a genuine shift towards Agile thinking.
  8. Feedback – It is important to establish a robust feedback loop that encourages honest, open communication. All customers, stakeholders, team members and managers should be able to feel free to give their opinion, and these views should be valued and acted upon.
  9. Rewarding Agile behaviours -If you recognise and reward behaviour that aligns with the principles you want to embody, such as adaptability, collaboration, and customer focus, this can reinforce the behaviours you want to form the backbone of your company culture.
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Final thoughts

By addressing the root causes of misinformation and confusion over the terms agile and Agile as a methodology, your business can overcome challenges that many organisations struggle with. By developing literacy, leveraging the tools and resources available to you and fostering a culture that is deeply rooted in Agile project management methodologies your organisation can help to promote a deep, understanding and effective implementation of these useful approaches. The result of a truly Agile organisation ensures best practice is always applied, and project success and stakeholder satisfaction are optimised.

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