A Brief Introduction to Agile Philosophy

Reducing time to delivery by developing in smaller incremental chunks and incorporating an ability to pivot is the cornerstone of Agile software development methodology.

“Agile” software development is a rarity among business buzz words in that it is actually a fitting description of what it seeks to accomplish. Optimally implemented, it is capable of delivering value and efficiency to business-IT partnerships by incorporating flexibility and an ability to pivot rapidly when necessary.

As a technology company with a longstanding management consulting pedigree, RiskSpan values the combination of discipline and flexibility inherent to Agile development and regularly makes use of the philosophy in executing client engagements. Dynamic economic environments contribute to business priorities that are seemingly in a near-constant state of flux. In response to these ever-evolving needs, clients seek to implement applications and application feature changes quickly and efficiently to realize business benefits early.

This growing need for speed and “agility” makes Agile software development methods an increasingly appealing alternative to traditional “waterfall” methodologies. Waterfall approaches move in discrete phases—treating analysis, design, coding, and testing as individual, stand-alone components of a software project. Historically, when the cost of changing plans was high, such a discrete approach worked best. Nowadays, however, technological advances have made changing the plan more cost-feasible. In an environment where changes can be made inexpensively, rigid waterfall methodologies become unnecessarily counterproductive for at least four reasons:

  1. When a project runs out of time (or money), individual critical phases—often testing—must be compressed, and overall project quality suffers.
  2. Because working software isn’t produced until the very end of the project, it is difficult to know whether the project is really on track prior to project completion.
  3. Not knowing whether established deadlines will be met until relatively late in the game can lead to schedule risks.
  4. Most important, discrete phase waterfalls simply do not respond well to the various ripple effects created by change.


Continuous Activities vs. Discrete Project Phases

Agile software development methodologies resolve these traditional shortcomings by applying techniques that focus on reducing overhead and time to delivery. Instead of treating fixed development stages as discrete phases, Agile treats them as continuous activities. Doing things simultaneously and continuously—for example, incorporating testing into the development process from day one—improves quality and visibility, while reducing risk. Visibility improves because being halfway through a project means that half of a project’s features have been built and tested, rather than having many partially built features with no way of knowing how they will perform in testing. Risk is reduced because feedback comes in from earliest stages of development and changes without paying exorbitant costs. This makes everybody happy.


Flexible but Controlled

Firms sometimes balk at Agile methods because of a tendency to equate “flexibility” and “agility” with a lack of organization and planning, weak governance and controls, and an abandonment of formal documentation. This, however, is a misconception. “Agile” does not mean uncontrolled—on the contrary, it is no more or less controlled than the existing organizational boundaries of standardized processes into which it is integrated. Most Agile methods do not advocate any particular methodology for project management or quality control. Rather, their intent is on simplifying the software development approach, embracing changing business needs, and producing working software as quickly as possible. Thus, Agile frameworks are more like a shell which users of the framework have full flexibility to customize as necessary.


Frameworks and Integrated Teams

Agile methodologies can be implemented using a variety of frameworks, including Scrum, Kanban, and XP. Scrum is the most popular of these and is characterized by producing a potentially shippable set of functionalities at the end of every iteration in two-week time boxes called sprints. Delivering high-quality software at the conclusion of such short sprints requires supplementing team activities with additional best practices, such as automated testing, code cleanup and other refactoring, continuous integration, and test-driven or behavior-driven development.

Agile teams are built around motivated individuals subscribing what is commonly referred to as a “lean Agile mindset.” Team members who embrace this mindset share a common vision and are motivated to contribute in ways beyond their defined roles to attain success. In this way, innovation and creativity is supported and encouraged. Perhaps most important, Agile promotes building relationships based on trust among team members and with the end-user customer in providing fast and high-quality delivery of software. When all is said and done, this is the aim of any worthwhile endeavor. When it comes to software development, Agile is showing itself to be an impressive means to this end.