Is It Possible to “Be Agile” without “Doing Agile”?

Recently, I was having a conversation with a prospective client who is exploring the possibility of implementing Agile practices for his organization. He asked an interesting question that I have encountered on a number of occasions in the past. However, this time, the question struck me in an unexpected way and sparked a thought, which led to this article. Note that I took the liberty to paraphrase most of the conversation.

The question that he asked me was: “How long will it take for me to see the benefits of ‘doing Agile’?”Agile_Facilitation_Medium_black_coral

In that moment, my initial reaction was my default response which is usually something along the lines of: “It is difficult to predict how long this type of change will take because many factors are involved. When it comes to changing how people think and work, we can’t predict the level of success until we start making changes and see how things unfold.” For some reason, I was struck by the term “doing Agile” since the goal for a high-performing organization is usually to “be agile” and not simply to go through the motions. So I decided to reply back, “It really depends on what you mean by ‘doing Agile’”.

Upon hearing this, my prospective client appeared intrigued, and responded, “Well, what I meant was to execute Agile processes ‘by the book’ so that we can stay competitive. Isn’t that the whole point of this type of change? To do things more efficiently?”

I hesitated for a moment, very tempted to respond to the remark “by the book”, but I resisted. I decided it was best to refocus the conversation on the desired outcomes that he was seeking.

“Tell me more about your expectations of making this change. I understand it will be an important investment for your company to make this transition, and I think it’s best that we clarify what you hope to get in return so that we can march forward together.”

“That’s easy – faster time to market, more reliable product releases and lower defect rate.”

“Do you think that doing Agile ‘by the book’ will achieve these results?”

“You tell me! You are the expert in this conversation, right?”

As I chuckled briefly at the casual sarcastic remark, I said, “I would like to suggest something. Perhaps we should make it a goal to ‘be agile’ rather than ‘do Agile’.” I paused to carefully observe the client’s reaction.

“Hmmm, if you are saying what I think you are saying, I believe I like where you are going. Simply following a process may not get us the results we are looking for. Are you saying that we can ‘be agile’ without ‘doing Agile’? It seems that we need to change our behavior eventually.”

“My opinion is that it is possible to ‘be agile’ without ‘doing Agile’, but if you focus all of your energy on ‘doing’, you may not achieve a meaningful change in the mindset, which is ultimately what is going to make the change sustainable and long-lasting.”

The rest of the conversation meandered into other subjects that are not central to this article, but I felt that this was an interesting experience in that Agile practitioners often focus 99% of their energy on ‘doing’, and not enough attention is paid to ‘being’; the mindset change is what will drive the desired outcomes. Someone once told me that if we master ‘doing’, we will eventually master ‘being’. I disagree with that somewhat because ‘doing’ alone does not guarantee learning, inspection, and adaptation, which I feel are imperative steps towards a mindset shift.

To wrap up this short article, if you are unclear how to move forward with your Agile adoption, start with what you know; learn and reflect incrementally. Seek support from experts who can offer guidance, mentorship, consultation that could significantly accelerate your transformation efforts.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai