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Less Agile or LeSS Agile?

Have People Lost the Plot?

I recently read a description of agile and Scrum as having the goal, “... your organization can increase speed and predictability, all while optimizing existing teams.” Boy, that was depressing. Have people lost the plot and forgotten why the word “agile” was chosen?

Why the word “Agile”?

Do you agree with this statement?: The purpose of agile is to improve efficiency, predictability, productivity, and meeting the project plan.

If so, no offense, but you don’t understand why the word agile was chosen, the purpose of agile, and the reason Scrum and related approaches were called agile frameworks. And that’s OK. We’re here to help ;)

Let’s start with a potted history that will reveal why the word “agile” was chosen: In the 1990s a family of “light” frameworks were gaining traction, including Scrum, XP, DSDM, Crystal, and Adaptive Software Development. In late 2000 Bob Martin (“Uncle Bob”) wanted to organize a meeting of like-minded people about these systems, leading to the Feb 2001 Snowbird meeting, which included Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland (the co-creators of Scrum).

Now we come to the key point: Early on at the Snowbird meeting the group wanted to choose a name to describe the major purpose of these frameworks. Two leading contenders were discussed and voted on: adaptive (suggested by Jim Highsmith) and agile (suggested by Mike Beedle). Please take careful note of this choice of words: they were both meant to convey flexibility. To quote Martin Fowler, who was also there:

We considered a bunch of names, and agreed eventually on “agile” as we felt that captured the adaptiveness and response to change which we felt was so important to our approach.

 

Agile is for Agility

The hot book when the word “agile” was chosen in 2001 was XP Explained by Kent Beck. Note his subtitle: Embrace Change. One of Kent’s key themes in motivating XP was to discover great solutions by learning and adapting, and to make that approach effective we need to lower the cost of change.

In short, agile is for agility. Scrum—an agile framework—is first and foremost for agility. Not efficiency, predictability, productivity, and meeting the project plan. This was further emphasized in the Agile values and principles that the group created:

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.
Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.


In the first LeSS (Large-Scale Scrum) book, Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Thinking & Organizational Tools for Large-Scale Scrum, one the thinking-tool chapters is called “Be Agile”; it includes the following:

“Agile” is not a practice. It is a quality of the organization and its people to be adaptive, responsive, continually learning and evolving -- to be agile. … Agile does not mean delivering faster. Agile does not mean fewer defects or higher quality. Agile does not mean higher productivity. Agile means agile -- the ability to move with quick easy grace, to be nimble and adaptable. To embrace change and become masters of change -- to compete through adaptability by being able to change faster and cheaper than your competition can.

Perhaps faster delivery and higher quality will be achieved with an agile method such as Scrum, but it is vital for business and engineering leaders to appreciate that the raison d’être of agile methods is ... agility.


Value and Agility

What about “early delivery of the most value”? Isn’t that the purpose of agile approaches and Scrum? Well, yes, but it’s vital to understand that the key message of “agile” is that  the path to that delivery of value will increasingly be—in today’s fast-paced, high-change, highly competitive environment—from the organizational capability to adapt (change direction) cheaply and easily, based on learning from feedback, rather than upfront planning and “following the plan.”

I like to say that the goal of agile approaches, including Scrum, is to discover successful solutions by being able to … turn on a dime for a dime.

The heart of agile and Scrum is not about “good execution of the project plan.” It is not about “speed, efficiency, predictability” and so on. People promoting that message have lost the plot of the agile story.

Less Agile or LeSS Agile: Descaling with LeSS

My focus, and that of my friend and the co-creator of LeSS, Bas Vodde, is to help larger product groups be agile and then discover and deliver successful solutions being able to turn on a dime for a dime at scale. Large traditional development group often impede agility or flexibility due to their organizational design; they are structurally less agile. So in the first (2008) LeSS book, we wrote:

It is vital to appreciate that organizational agility cannot be achieved by a development team in isolation -- it is a system challenge for organizational redesign. Especially when you are interested in LeSS within an R&D department of thousands, where each product group may have 200 or 700 people distributed in two or five sites around the world. If an engineering team has the technical capacity to adapt or change quickly, but requirements management, legal practices, product management, HR policies, site strategies, and deployment processes all emphasize rigidity, conformance to original plans, conformance to the status quo, and slow practices, then how can there be real agility?


The point of “making change cheap” is especially relevant at scale, because large-scale groups often have fossilized organizational designs and processes that “make change expensive.” So much of what is happening in successfully scaling Scrum is removing those organizational elements that inhibit agility, that inhibit changing direction easily and cheaply. What are some examples of elements that inhibit “change easily and cheaply”? Single-function groups, project milestones, the traditional program/project management system, single-function workers, high levels of WIP, handoff between groups, and more.

So LeSS is not really about enabling an existing big group to “do Scrum at scale.” Rather, LeSS is about descaling the organization, and creating a design that systemically enables agility at scale, with simple elements, to be LeSS Agile.

To learn more about LeSS and descaling the organization for real agility, check out LeSS.works.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.4 (48 ratings)
Comments
Anton Skornyakov
It's important the original thinking is manifested in such articles as this one.

Too many companies these days adopt Scrum in order to get higher output.

This is not the goal!
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10/1/2016 2:31:13 AM

AgileRam
Hi Craig, Greetings

I am continually learning the agile movement while supporting agile transformation for more than a decade now.
I happened to see your article and and thought of giving you some feedback, ask questions, and in that process
learn more.

1) Your article stated "Perhaps faster delivery and higher quality will be achieved with an agile method such as Scrum.."

Question: Jeff and Ken described Scrum as a Framework, your article states Scrum is an agile method...Did you mean Scrum
is a method(ology)?
You have used 'Perhaps' in the context of Scrum, indicating uncertainty, did your experience
with scrum see uncertainity with respect to faster delivery and higher quality?

2) A quote from your article ".. to compete through adaptability by being able to change faster and cheaper than .."
=======
Question: I have underlined cheaper. Your article started with " “... your organization can increase speed and
predictability, all while optimizing existing teams.” Boy, that was depressing... ",
and down below you have used 'cheaper', Did the original definition imply cheaper but not other benefits
as others interepretted like 'increase in speed, predictability...'.?

3) You article has used 'Agile' and 'agile' the adjective everywhere. I am confused which one you are referring to where.

Question: I agree with you 'agile' adjective is a quality of moving quickly and easily representing adaptiveness and
responding to change. I thought the capital 'Agile' is a practice of mastering and living Agile values and Principles.
Would you disagree?

4) I thought the reason corporations are adopting Agile frameworks is to quickly enhance effectiveness (doing the right thing)
and efficiency (doing it right). Do you disagree? if yes , would corporates embrace Agile Frameworks if the outcome from
them is uncertain?

5) What is the one greatest thing that LeSS offers that Nexus and SAFe does not provide?

Thank you for your responses.
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8/17/2016 4:29:15 PM

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It's really true:"“Agile” is not a practice. It is a quality of the organization and its people to be adaptive, responsive, continually learning and evolving -- to be agile. … Agile does not mean delivering faster. Agile does not mean fewer defects or higher quality. Agile does not mean higher productivity. Agile means agile -- the ability to move with quick easy grace, to be nimble and adaptable. To embrace change and become masters of change -- to compete through adaptability by being able to change faster and cheaper than your competition can."
8/17/2016 4:23:58 PM

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A great reminder on 'agile.' Transformation at the enterprise level will remain to be a challenge.

Thanks for writing a short and simple article about LeSS
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7/6/2016 6:54:44 AM

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Great article. A simple concept and easy to miss. Thanks for reminding us.
6/11/2016 8:33:33 AM

Essentia Essien
Dear Craig, Thanks for sharing concepts on LeSS. Critically, Scaling Agility, in terms of ART 50-120 developer proponents, potentially contradicts Leadership controls called the Span of Control. Here a Leader is productive or effective with no more than 20persons under the leader's support.
2/29/2016 9:21:53 PM

Vidya Y.Mane
Thanks for sharing real concepts behind being agile.
1/25/2016 9:12:41 AM

gene gendel
Craig, "Less Agile or LeSS Agile: Descaling with LeSS" - I view this as one of the most fundamental purposes of promoting and supporting LeSS.
Thanks to you and Bas for formalizing this for public ;)
9/3/2015 9:17:34 AM

Namitha Naveen
Very Interesting!! to understand easily about LeSS.

Thanks a lot for the article.
7/28/2015 1:38:11 AM

Koti
Interesting about LeSS Vs Less
7/27/2015 7:08:27 AM

R Keeleong
A great reminder on 'agile.' Transformation at the enterprise level will remain to be a challenge, but applying the change where it benefit the most on 'agility' and cost of change are starting points.
7/20/2015 6:14:35 AM

Bharathi T M
Good read! Interesting to note that while going with the flow of things, one can easily forget that 'Agile means Agility' ;-)
7/20/2015 2:43:37 AM

Stephan Neck
Dear Craig

thanks for clarifying again what "agile" means - as a scrum professional in a big company which is actually in a transformation phase your thoughts will help me staying focused on what it is all about.
"Let's keep it agile"
7/11/2015 8:04:01 AM

Giuseppe De Simone
Thanks for this great article reminding all of us the real purpose of agility! Crisp and to the point!
6/15/2015 3:20:44 AM

Ehtesham Uddin
Thanks for writing a short and simple article about LeSS. I have read the two LeSS books and found that there are lot of concepts that need to be understood to effectively become Agile. As every organization is different, LeSS show the path to them to become Agile rather than imposing some big process to follow and the best way to be successful is to inspect & adapt with your own experience.
6/15/2015 1:10:36 AM

Naveen Kumar Singh
Happy see "LeSS is about descaling the organization". Other scaling framework talks about adding more roles that completely go against the concept of agility.
6/15/2015 12:23:35 AM

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