An Overview of Lean-Agile Methods


Life used to be simpler. In the early 2000s, if you wanted to go "agile," XP was the route of choice. And then Scrum became popular. And it was not too long before organizations began to hit the limits of these approaches due to their focus on teams. And then it became apparent that lean principles could be applied to software and Lean Software Development and later Kanban were added to the mix. Now, you have a great many choices: Not just about which method to use, but where to start, whether to go top-down or bottom-up, and what should be the scope of your effort.

What is Agile?
Let’s start by considering what is meant by “Agile.” Many people would tell you that Agile means building software in small steps (iterations), measuring the progress and health of the project in terms of developed software, and working in close contact with the customer to ensure that what is built is truly useful. This is what I would call “team agility” because its focus is on the team and how the team works. It is the most common form of agility in use at present. While it is very effective for many, it should not really be the goal you strive for.

The best measure of success—the real goal of our work—must focus on how responsive the business unit that the development organization serves can be. I call this “business agility.” It encompasses more than merely the team. Unfortunately, it is much harder to achieve. Business agility is the ability for a business (or business unit) to deliver increments of business value to their customers (for product companies) or the business side of the organization (for IT organizations). Business agility enables companies to respond quickly as needed when market conditions change, new technologies arise, or new ideas are developed.

Business agility is like having a car that is nimble, efficient, and goes where it needs to. Team agility is like having a finely tuned engine that enables the car to do whatever the driver wants. In other words, business agility is the real goal; team agility is a means to that end. Now it may be that in small enough organizations, focusing on the team alone may be adequate; however, in most organizations of size, trying to achieve business agility by focusing on the team is like trying to get a better performing car just by tuning and re-tuning the engine: it can help but you might see better results by improving the transmission or brakes. 

Popular Agile Methods: Scrum and XP
As I said, Scrum and now, to a lesser extent, eXtreme Programming, have been the most popular methods in the Agile movement. XP is rooted in development practices such as pair-programming, test-first, continuous integration, collective ownership and more. Scrum is primarily a process framework that exposes an organization’s impediments. Its underlying assumption is that if you can see what you are doing wrong, you can fix the problem. Scrum’s power is that you will discover problems quickly—in a matter of weeks. This is a vast improvement over waterfall methods. The challenge is that sometimes the problems that are exposed are such that the solutions are not clear.

Both methods use iterations (building in 1-4 week intervals) and self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Scrum has gotten to be more popular for a few reasons. First, it is easier to start because the team doesn’t have to commit to the technical practices that are the core of XP. This level of change is too much for some teams to bear. Second, Scrum’s certification program has spawned scores of “Certified Scrum Trainers” (CSTs) who both teach Scrum and promote it. As a result, many in the industry have come to think that “going Agile” means “taking a CSM (Certified ScrumMaster) class and adopting Scrum.”


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