What is agile methodology?

January 5, 2024 // 7 min read

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Learn what agile is, its benefits, why it’s so popular, and how you can apply it in software development and other kinds of work.

If you have a friend or coworker who's a software developer, product manager, or project manager, you may have heard them mention "agile" before. But what is agile, and why do so many people seem obsessed with it?

In short, agile is a method of software development that prioritizes delivering value to customers in short and frequent iterations. It's also become a popular practice in other scenarios besides software.

Agile is not a single method but a family of techniques that share common values and principles. In this article, we'll explore what agile methodology is, its benefits, how it's used in different scenarios and professions, and what tools and integrations to use to make your Agile projects more efficient and enjoyable.

The Agile Manifesto and methodologies

First, a super-quick history lesson. While it might feel like agile has been around forever, it was created in 2001 by a group of 17 software developers, product managers, and project managers who gathered in Snowbird, Utah to discuss their frustrations with the traditional software development lifecycle. At the meeting, they wrote the Agile Manifesto, a document in which they described their vision for a better way of creating software.

While it might feel like agile has been around forever, it was created in 2001 by 17 software developers, product managers, and project managers who gathered in Snowbird, Utah, to discuss their frustrations with the traditional software development lifecycle. At the meeting, they wrote the Agile Manifesto, a document describing their vision for a better way of creating software.

The Agile Manifesto

The Snowbird 17's manifesto centered on four core values:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  4. Responding to change over following a plan

These values emphasize the importance of human communication, feedback, adaptation, and delivering functional software that meets the customer's needs.

The manifesto also includes 12 principles for organizations to follow to create a collaborative software development culture:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.

  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for a shorter timescale.

  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.

  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

  10. Simplicity---the art of maximizing the amount of work not done---is essential.

  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Common agile methodologies

In practice, the agile methodology includes a range of methods and frameworks, some of which, like scrum and extreme programming (XP), existed before Agile and heavily influenced it. Some examples:

  • Extreme programming (XP): A methodology that emphasizes high-quality software development through practices such as test-driven development, pair programming, code reviews, refactoring, and continuous integration. XP also advocates for frequent communication with the customer, short release cycles, and embracing change.

  • Kanban: A "lean" method that visualizes the workflow of the project using a board with columns that represent the stages of the process, such as "to-do," "in progress," and "done." Kanban uses cards to represent work items and limits the number of cards in each column at a time to prevent bottlenecks and improve efficiency. It was originally developed at Toyota to make their manufacturing more efficient.

  • Lean: A philosophy---also adapted from Toyota's manufacturing processes---that aims to cut waste and maximize value in the software development process. Lean focuses on delivering the most valuable features to customers as fast as possible and applying the principle of continuous improvement, known as kaizen, to optimize the process and eliminate activities that don't add value.

  • Scrum: A framework that divides the project into small and time-boxed iterations called sprints, where the team works on a prioritized list of features called the product backlog. Scrum is characterized by its clearly defined roles like product owner, scrum master, and development team, and events including sprint planning, daily scrums, sprint reviews, and the sprint retrospectives.

These are just a few examples of agile software development methodologies, and there are many more, including crystal, feature-driven development (often abbreviated as FDD), and the dynamic systems development method (DSDM). Each methodology has its own strengths and potential limitations depending on the scenario, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution for every project. Organizations often choose the methodology that best suits their needs or even combine elements from different methodologies to create their own customized agile approach.

Benefits of agile methodology

Agile offers many benefits for software development and other types of work, such as:

  • Adaptability and flexibility: Agile allows the team to respond to changing requirements and customer feedback quickly and effectively without compromising the quality of the software. Agile also empowers the team to make decisions and experiment with new ideas, fostering a culture of innovation and creativity.

  • Enhanced collaboration and customer focus: Agile promotes close collaboration between the team members, the business stakeholders, and the customers, creating a shared vision and understanding of the project goals and expectations. Agile also involves the customer throughout the development process, guaranteeing that the software meets their needs and delivers value.

  • Delivering functional software: Agile focuses on delivering working software that provides value to the customer rather than spending time and resources on documentation, planning, and reporting. Agile also encourages frequent testing and feedback, making sure that the software is of high quality and meets the standards and expectations of the customer.

These benefits can drive improved customer satisfaction, faster time to market, lower costs, and improved team morale and productivity.

Agile in non-software scenarios

Agile methodology applies to software development and other sectors and domains, such as marketing, product management, and scaling agile in large organizations. Some common examples:

  • Marketing: Agile can be applied to the marketing process to create campaigns, launch products, and generate leads, just to name a few. Agile marketing aims to deliver value to the customer faster, adapt to changing market conditions, and measure the impact of the marketing efforts. Methodologies such as scrum or kanban are popular in agile marketing, but hybrid agile methodologies are common, too.

  • Product management: Agile product management is like agile software development because it prioritizes delivering value to the customer, collaborating with the stakeholders, and responding to change. Agile product management can use methodologies such as scrum or lean, or custom frameworks. Agile product management often uses tools and techniques that emphasize product vision, roadmap, backlog, and user stories.

  • "Scaling agile" in large organizations: Particularly useful for enterprise application development, scaling agile (also called "scaled agile" and "agile scaling") is a way of applying agile to an entire organization or to large, complex projects that involve multiple teams, departments, and locations. Scaling agile aims to coordinate and align the efforts of the different teams, while maintaining the agility and flexibility of the individual teams. Scaling agile can use frameworks such as the scaled agile framework (SAFe), large-scale scrum (LeSS), nexus, or the amazingly named scrum of scrums.

Agile's versatility and scalability have led to it being widely adopted by many industries—including healthcare, education, and financial services—because it enhances value to customers, collaboration between stakeholders, and more rapid responses to change.

Agile tools and integrations

Since agile began in 2001, a number of tools and integrations have been developed to support agile methodologies:

  • GitHub: GitHub is a platform that empowers developers to collaborate on software projects, using key features that include version control, code review, issue tracking. GitHub also integrates with many other tools and services, like Azure DevOps and Microsoft Teams, to enhance the communication and coordination of teams.

  • Microsoft Teams: Teams is a communication tool that allows agile teams to chat, share files, and create channels for different topics and projects. Teams also connect with other tools and services, such as GitHub and Azure DevOps, to provide project notifications and updates.

  • Azure DevOps: Azure DevOps is a project management tool that allows agile teams to plan, track, and manage projects using features such as boards, pipelines, test plans, and artifacts. It also connects with many other tools and services, such as GitHub and Teams, to provide visibility and transparency on agile projects.

These are just some examples of tools and integrations that can be used to support agile teams and projects. The choice of tools and integrations depends on the team's needs, and most tools offer a degree of customization to align with different agile styles.

How to start using agile methodology

If you're new to agile, getting started might feel a little overwhelming. But part of what makes agile great is that it's a very flexible methodology. This flexibility allows you to start with a simplified version and then expand on it as your team becomes more comfortable and adopts its own style of agile. In a nutshell, here's how you'd run a project using agile:

Step 1: Form a cross-functional team of 5 to 9 people who can work together on a common goal. Assign roles and responsibilities, such as product owner, scrum master, and developers.

Step 2: Define the scope and vision of your project and create a product backlog, which is a list of features and requirements that you want to deliver. Prioritize the most important and valuable items first.

Step 3: Plan your first sprint, which is a short period of time (usually two weeks) in which you commit to completing a set of tasks from the product backlog. Break down the tasks into smaller and more easily manageable units, and estimate the time and effort needed for each one.

Step 4: Execute your sprint, and work as a team to develop, test, and integrate the tasks. Communicate regularly and hold daily meetings (called stand-ups) to report on your progress, challenges, and plans. Use tools like Azure DevOps to track and manage your work.

Step 5: Review and reflect on your sprint and showcase your work to your customers and stakeholders. Gather feedback and learn from your successes and failures. Update your product backlog and plan your next sprint.

Remember that agile is designed for continuous iteration, so after you complete these steps, you can repeat the cycle as many times as you need to continue refining your product or goals.

Conclusion

In this article, we've covered what agile methodology is, its benefits, how it can be applied in different sectors, and what agile tools and integrations you can use to make your projects more productive and less stressful. Here's the TL;DR:

Agile is a way of developing software that focuses on delivering value to customers in short and frequent iterations, using the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto. Agile isn't a single method but a family of methods that share some common values and principles, including scrum, kanban, and lean. Agile offers many benefits for software development, such as adaptability, collaboration, and quality, but can also be used in other areas, such as marketing, product management, and scaling agile in large organizations. Agile is supported by many tools and integrations, such as GitHub, Azure DevOps, and Microsoft Teams, to enhance the communication and coordination needed for teams to be truly agile.

FAQ

What does agile mean in software development?

Agile means developing software that focuses on delivering value to customers in short and frequent iterations, using the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto. Agile also means collaborating continuously with stakeholders, adapting to changing requirements and feedback, and continuously improving the quality and efficiency of the software development process.

What are the 4 principles of agile?

The 4 principles of agile are:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  4. Responding to change over following a plan

What are 4 types of Agile Development?

The 4 agile development methodologies are scrum, kanban, lean, and extreme programming (XP). Other popular methodologies related to agile include crystal, feature-driven development (often abbreviated as FDD), and the dynamic systems development method (DSDM).

What is agile vs. scrum?

Agile is a way of developing software that focuses on delivering value to customers in short and frequent iterations, using the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto. Scrum is a framework that implements the agile approach, using roles (e.g., product owner, scrum master, development team), events (e.g., sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review, sprint retrospective), and artifacts (e.g., product backlog and sprint backlog).

What is agile vs. waterfall?

Agile and waterfall are two different approaches to software development and other kinds of work:

  • Agile follows an iterative and incremental process, where the project is divided into small and time-boxed iterations, where the team works on a prioritized list of features and delivers working software at the end of each iteration.

  • Waterfall is a traditional approach that follows a linear and sequential process, where the project is divided into phases, such as analysis, design, development, testing, and deployment, and each phase is completed before moving to the next one.

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