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Agile SE Part One: What is Agile, Anyway?

Welcome to a new series on Agile Systems Engineering exploring the practical aspects of this emerging approach.

What is “Agile”?

Agile is a relatively new approach to software development based on the Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles. These documents are straightforward. I will sum them up as stating that development should be driven by what is most valuable to the customer and that our projects should align around delivering value.

Yes, I’ve obnoxiously italicized the word value as if it were in the glossary of a middle school textbook. That’s because value is the essence of this discussion.

Little-a Agile

With a little-a, “agile” is the ability to adapt to a changing situation. This means collaboration to understand the stakeholder needs and the best way to satisfy those needs. It means changing the plan when the situation (or your understanding of the situation) changes. It means understanding what is valuable to the customer, focusing on delivering that value, and minimizing non-value add effort.

Big-A Agile

With a big-A, “Agile” is a software development process that aims to fulfill the agile principles. There are actually several variants that fall under the Agile umbrella such as Scrum, Kanban, and Extreme Programming. Each of these have techniques, rituals, and processes that supposedly lead to delivery of a quality product by helping teams focus on value-added work.

“Cargo Cult” Agile

“Agile” has become the hot-new-thing, buzzword darling of the U.S. defense industry. Did I mean Big-A or Little-a? It hardly matters. As contractors have rushed to promote their “new” development practices, they have trampled the distinction. The result is Cargo Cult Agile: following the rituals of an Agile process and expecting that the project will magically become more efficient and effective as a result. I wrote about this previously, calling it agile-in-name-only and FrAgile.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of contractors. They want to follow the latest best practices from commercial industry to most effectively meet the needs of their customers. But as anyone who has worked in the defense industry can tell you, the pace of change is glacial due to a combination of shear bureaucratic size and byzantine regulations. Most contracts just don’t support agile principles. For example, the Manifesto prioritizes “working software over comprehensive documentation” and one of the Principles is that “working software is the primary measure of progress”; but, most defense contracts require heaps of documentation that are evaluated as the primary measure of progress.

The upshot is that, to most engineers in the defense industry, “Agile” is an annoying new project management approach. Project management is already the least enjoyable part of our job, an obstacle to deal with so that we can get on with the real work. Now we have to learn a new way of doing things that may not be the most effective way to organize our teams and has no real impact on the success of the program. This has resulted in an undeserved bad taste for many of us.

If this is your experience with Agile, please understand that this is not the true intent and practice. The rest of this series will talk about how we achieve real agility.

Agile Systems Engineering

So far, I’ve only mentioned Agile as a software development approach. Of course, we’re here because Agile is being appropriated to all types of engineering, especially as “Agile Hardware Development” and “Agile Systems Engineering”. Some people balk at this; how can a software process be applied to hardware and systems? Here, the distinction between little-a agile and big-A Agile is essential. Software agile development evangelists have taken the values in the Manifesto and Principles and created Agile processes and tools that realize them.

It’s incumbent upon other engineering disciplines to do the same. We must understand the agile values, envision how they are useful in our context (type of engineering, type of solution, customer, etc.), and then craft or adapt Agile processes and tools that make sense. Where many projects and teams go wrong is trying to shoehorn their needs into an Agile process that is a poor fit, and then blaming the process.

Stay Tuned

In the rest of this series we’ll explore how agile SE can provide customer value, how our contracts can be crafted to enable effective Agile processes, and what those processes might look like for a systems engineering team. Stay tuned!

Have you worked on a project with “Cargo Cult Agile”? Have you adapted agile principles effectively in your organization? What other resources are out there for Agile systems engineering? Share your thoughts in the comments below.