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Thinking Agile - the core ideas of Agility

Agile is not like any other changes, transformations or methods you may have previously applied to your work - it is a fundamental change in the mindset of a whole organisation. Everyone from the Chief Executive to the newest, most junior recruit must understand the ideas of agile and adopt the agile mindset if we are going to get the most from this change. We are rethinking what we do and how we approach it.

There are many articles, sites, books etc. about specific ways to be agile (e.g. scrum, kanban, lean) and many of the techniques used in agile have existed from long before agile had a name - we are not trying to reinvent things that already exist and work well. The difference is in the way we think about the whole approach to deciding what we do and how we do it. If you can think agile then any technique could be appropriate. If you do not think in an agile way then no amount of adoption of the words and processes of agile will make you agile.

It is also important to realise that ‘being agile’ is not something you will ever achieve. ‘Being more agile’ is the target - every step adds value. It is an ongoing process of change and improvement. Becoming more agile is, itself, an agile process.

The layers of agile are commonly explained with the agile onion.

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An individual, team or organisation is not getting the best from agile until they ‘get it’ at all these levels. The articles on this site mostly concentrate on the mindset, independent of any specific technology or terminology.

What is Agile thinking?

Agile is about delivering the best solutions in the best way.

Essential categories of thinking:

Put those ideas together and they will help individuals, teams and organisations benefit from the true value of agile. Miss any of them out and you are not agile.

Why concentrate on these things?

These points are core differences between Agile approaches and other approaches. This section contains some short notes on why these things make agile more effective than methods that do not embrace these features.

Joint enterprise

Working together to deliver a common goal ensures that all work (including new, dynamic decision-making) is aligned to these overall goals. This reduces the amount of conflicting or competing work that is happening and facilitates streamlining by reusing work and activities where possible/appropriate, rather than having multiple parts of an organisation doing essentially the same thing. It also helps reduce the overhead of communication activities since people can focus on the things that impact them and require their direct involvement. This can have many effects such as reducing the length and improving the focus of meetings.

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Empirical basis

Difficulties in teams and organisations can commonly arise from conflicting views on how to approach certain decisions and activities. Hierarchical structures and dictatorial management can result in projects and organisations following inappropriate routes, even though most of the participants know this is the wrong way to go. Decisions based on “Who shouts loudest” or “Highest paid person’s opinion” are common. So are decisions by committees who do not understand the implications of their decisions. The only sensible way to move away from this is to base our decisions on actual data. Newer tools make it much easier to aggregate and visualise this information without intermediaries who ‘interpret’ it in the way that they find most suitable for their ends.

This improves the realism of our planning, progress tracking and decision-making. It also helps us get rid of the “illusion of certainty” where we draw graphs and the like to make it appear that we know what we are doing despite having insufficient information. This ‘guess’ then often becomes embedded as a fact in the organisation - even though it has no basis in fact. With our empirical approach, we look at real data, but also embrace what we do not know and the uncertainties in the data. We can then target those uncertainties (in a structured manner, over time) to develop more realistic models. This is a continuous process.

The result is that we avoid going down “wrong paths” and make the best decisions we can at any given time. This can save vast amounts of wasted resource, time and money.


It may sound obvious, but it is important to deliver solutions and services which are valuable to someone and doing it in ways where each piece of activity involved in that delivery contributes to the value. Of course, we would all like to be doing that all the time, no matter what approach we use. Sometimes that gets lost in larger pieces of work resulting in essential work not being done, priorities being mis-placed and less efficient use of resources.

In agile we place value upfront at all levels of our work and use it to help us with planning, prioritisation and many other decisions.


Most of us have had the experience of large, complex plans, specifications and other documents. These often try to be complete and exhaustive at the expense of comprehensibility - they contain much information which is not relevant to a specific audience and are rarely read or understood fully by everyone.

In agile a key measure is simplicity. By keeping things clear and simple we ensure the relevant information (and no more) reaches everyone who needs it. If something feels complex or incomprehensible, then it is not agile enough. This improves communication, planning, decision-making, effective use of time and much more.

We achieve a lot of this by breaking things down into hierarchical structures where each level can be related, but where most people can concentrate on a small number of levels at a time, depending on their role.

Just in Time

Just it time means producing things (including delivering solutions, refining plans, documentation etc.) just sufficiently far ahead of when it will be needed. This does not mean doing everything last minute, but doing it at the latest appropriate time.

By doing this, we ensure our work is based on the best and most accurate data we have available - and that will change as draft1a piece of work progresses, which is why this is significantly more effective than trying to make complete plans in advance with insufficient or inaccurate data.

This also means we can (and must) make a better job of working closely with end-users and stakeholders throughout our project. We can use tight feedback cycles to better inform our values and improve our data so that decisions in the near future are as accurate as possible and decisions which are further away can be revised and improved before we commit to them.

Some key ways to achieve these things