Agile has become commonly used as a noun and it is the worst thing for the cause of agility.
Agile is an adjective: able to move quickly and easily.
If there is one thing that has bugged me a lot in the past year or two it is the constant use of the word agile, as a noun. I know it happens sometimes that proper nouns become categories: Band-Aid or Kleenex come to mind. But those are great for the vendor. Sometimes a proper noun becomes a verb: Google is a company but any time you look something up on the internet you google it. (Or if you are from my part of the country you Bing it). But even those are good for the company.
Something sinister has happened to agile.
People have stopped using the word agile as an adjective and it has lost its power. Agile now means 4 different things as far as I can tell:
1. Nimble (the original meaning)
2. Agility enabling practices (scrum, xp, etc...)
3. The agile movement (people wanting to become nimble)
4. 21st Century management practices (just good management)
Here is a little test. The next time you are in a conversation about agility substitute the word nimble, for the word agile. It will completely change the meaning. Try it out. Here are some common phrases I hear all the time:
- We are going implement agile in our company.
- Agile just doesn't work in our context
- I think we need to use agile on this project
Now say those with the word nimble. HA! Sounds ridiculous doesn't it.
"We are going to implement nimble." You cannot implement nimble. You can be nimble. That is because nimble is an adjective, not a noun. Let's look at another adjective: Happy. Can you do happy? How do you DO happy? You cannot. You may do things that make you happy. Or you may be happy but you cannot do happy. Likewise you cannot do agile. How would you do nimble? You can be agile. That is totally different.
If you try my challenge you will force yourself to be more specific. Let's look at what the phrases earlier might look like if we got more specific.
We are going implement agile in our company.
- We are going to implement Scrum in our company
- We are going to strive to become more nimble in our delivery
- We are going to treat our team members with respect and allow them more decision making power
Agile just doesn't work in our context
- Scrum didn't work for us
- Our product development cycle is too long to be nimble (this is a flawed conception of agile but out of the scope of this article)
- We couldn't get our managers to give up control and trust their people (you will never hear this one out loud ;-)
I think we need to use agile on this project
- I think we need to be able to get feedback and respond quickly to be successful on this project
- I think we should trust our people more
- I think we need to collaborate a lot to be successful
- I think we don't know what we don't know, we should iterate the development
See how much more clearly those second versions are, and how many possible meanings were tied up in the first? When agile is used as a noun it confuses people and obfuscates our real meaning.
I think the problem goes all the way back to 2001 when the Agile Manifesto for Software Development was written. The title used it as a noun and things have been bad ever since. Yes I know that was the first time agile was used to describe this light weight methods movement. In 2011 I did a series of podcasts interviewing the people who were there. But what Ward Cunningham says in this recording is that the word agile was used because it had all the right connotations and they were familiar with agile manufacturing. Unfortunately they called the darn thing the Agile Manifesto for Software Development. In this case they were using the term as a noun, even without knowing it. They did not believe that the manifesto was itself nimble. But it described a way of working that was nimble/agile. But it stuck. Agile is now used as a noun all over the place.
Stop the madness!
Be more precise in your use of language.
Take the challenge.
Use the word nimble for a week and see if it doesn't bring clarity to your thinking and your conversations.
Post your experiences here.
Founder, Whitewater Projects, Inc.