Celebrating 20 Years of the Agile Manifesto

This February, the Agile Manifesto turned 20 years old. Mark Lines recently joined thought leaders from the agile community at the Agile Manifesto Futurespective event to discuss his experience with agile ways of working as well as what the future holds for agile moving forward. Here are his takeaways.

Written by Mark Lines • 16 March 2021


Image by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Many organizations tend to talk about agile as if it’s a brand-new approach to working and solving problems, and we’ve certainly seen an uptick in organizations, including many that you might not expect, embracing agile approaches.

For many long-term agile watchers and believers, however, we more or less chalk up the beginning of the agile movement to the creation of the Agile Manifesto—the key principles of agile that continue to shape much of our thinking today, including the emphasis on satisfying the customer, the expectation of iteration throughout the development process, and the power of self-organizing teams.

The Manifesto was originally laid out by a group of professionals focused on addressing challenges in software development—an area still well known for its applications of agile. But, of course, in the years since, a wide range of sectors and organizations have adopted agile principles to enhance how they get work done and deliver value.

And yet, today’s environment has presented new challenges to consider. One principle the Manifesto states says, “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” This is not quite so straightforward in the age of COVID-19—or perhaps, Zoom has simply redefined the idea of “face-to-face.”

Indeed, agile has come a long way in the decades since the Manifesto was put to paper in February 2001. Agile is increasingly recognized not simply as a style of programming, but a comprehensive approach to managing teams and organizations of all stripes.

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in Agile Manifesto Futurespective, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Manifesto and looking ahead to the future. I was pleased to join a selection of leading agile thinkers and doers—including a few present at the initial Manifesto drafting at a ski lodge in the mountains of Utah—to discuss how agile can be further scaled to help organizations tackle some of the world’s thorniest challenges.

I heard a lot of terrific insights at the event; here’s a few key takeaways:

  • Enable strong customer relationships. A positive legacy of the Agile Manifesto has been breaking down the divisions between practitioners and their customers, enabling what one speaker called “real legitimate conversations.” He contrasted the old days of Fortune 100 companies “keeping engineers away” from customers for fear they would promise something they couldn’t deliver, as opposed to today when technology firms like Microsoft directly engage developers in responding to customer inquiries. These closer relationships enable designers, for example, to better understand their customers (who focus on solutions, not approaches) and better grasp the actual “job to be done.”
  • Love the problem, not the solution. In the words of Ash Maurya, the author of “Running Lean: How to Iterate from Plan A to a plan that works”—love the problem, not the solution. A common pitfall for many agile practitioners over the years has been focusing too intently on a specific remedy for a problem—a surefire way to find yourself in “framework prison” and beholden to an approach that may not be appropriate for the problem in front of you. Rather than locking yourself into an approach that may not be suitable for evolving problem needs, spend the time to fully explore and understand the issue you are aiming to solve.
  • All problems are people problems. One speaker quoted the iconic American computer scientist Gerald Weinberg’s Second Law of Consulting: “No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.” We must therefore resist the temptation to pretend that we can solve our challenges with technology; technology remains a mere tool, and technical solutions can’t be the ultimate remedy for human problems. For example, think of addressing a challenge like climate change by solely focusing on the technology needed to lower emissions, without considering how to transition workers into new industries or help vulnerable communities cope with the damage that has already been baked into the equation.

I spend my days immersed in all things agile, but events like this are wonderful opportunities to take a periodic step back and reflect on the impact that agile has left on the world. I left energized by how agile helps us to, as one speaker put it, “dismantle some of the 19th-century management practices that treat people as little more than cogs in a vast machine, rather than leaders and changemakers to be empowered.” A silver lining of COVID-19’s acceleration of virtual work could be the long-lasting shift away from a work culture in which productivity is measured by the number of cars in the office parking lot late into the evening.

Yes, there will continue to be challenges, especially as “off the shelf” solutions and coaching options proliferate. Many have figured out that it’s far easier to sell a framework than it is to teach organizations how to create agile ways of working that make sense for them. Copying and pasting a canned method or framework into your organization will not yield you the results you expect and is often a key reason that agile transformations fail. Achieving true agility and its promised benefits does indeed require that we rethink our approach to how we do our work—always a humbling notion.

One agile coach who spoke during the conference spoke of the priceless testimonials she had received from clients, like the CEO who said, with tears in his eyes, “Thank you. I’ve learned to love my team again. I work with a software development team who told me—for the first time ever—they finally understand the ‘why’ behind what they are creating. And they actually had the space and autonomy to figure out how to do it.”

May the next 20 years bring the same passion, innovation, and, yes, happiness to our work lives.

Mark Lines headshot

Mark Lines
Vice President | Disciplined Agile, PMI

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