Agile is the steering wheel, not the gas pedal

Agile is about optimizing business value

As my love for car metaphors is now well-documented, let’s try to apply it to one of the most annoyingly misunderstood approaches to software delivery. The Agile Manifesto, signed by most key people involved in the agile movement, aimed to give “agile” a commonly agreed on definition. Sadly, over 15 years later, I still encounter misconceptions quite regularly.

“Agile” got it’s name from the ability to be flexible, meaning being able to change a project along the way as opposed to defining everything upfront. The basic value proposition of agile is as follows: the development team will allow the business (perhaps represented by a product owner) to prioritize software delivery by the highest business value gained, including re-prioritization as new business opportunities emerge or the competitive environment changes. Following this logic, agile methods assure that for the development cost incurred the business receives the maximum possible value.

The core of being agile is therefore being able to change direction. The simplest way I have found to explain agile to a broad audience is clarify that “agile” is the car’s steering wheel, not the gas pedal. The base assumption is that delivering business software is closer to autocross (or an obstacle course) than a straight-line drag race, so the steering is actually very important.

The gas pedal is also important, but that corresponds to different mechanisms. For example, a fully automated software delivery pipeline reduces friction and speeds up software delivery. That’s equivalent to pushing down the gas pedal.

Wishing for what you value

I have been thinking about why the fairly simple approach of agile methods keeps getting mis-represented for a decade-and-a-half despite so many attempts at setting the record straight. I came to the conclusion that it isn’t a simple misunderstanding - it’s the result of misaligned values.

It seems that IT’s wish to deliver projects faster and at lower cost

cost vs opportunity Reverse engineering the organization

Still want to use it, but based on wrong drivers - won’t really deliver the results