Agile Development was created in an attempt to pivot from traditional and rigid project management and software development models, like the Waterfall model that could not keep up with the speed and flexibility of the digital revolution. Today, most tech businesses practice one or more Αgile frameworks in their software development processes; in order to be efficient, and stay ahead of the competition.
So, what is the Agile Development methodology and what frameworks does it include? What are its benefits, and what are its disadvantages? Most of all, how can it help teams become cross-functional, create high-quality products, and deliver value to customers?
What is Agile Development?
Agile Development is an iterative and incremental approach to project — and product — management and software development — based on a set of principles, values and practices, as expressed on the Agile Manifesto — that help teams collaborate efficiently, and deliver business value to their customers, fast.
The Agile mindset recognizes that team collaboration is critical in improving the quality of a product; where Agile teams do this in sprints, with short-term deliverables. They focus on creating minimum viable products (MVPs), and taking them through several fast iterations; while gathering user feedback, and implementing it accordingly. Everything is continuously monitored and evaluated, so that teams can respond to change and address any failure early on in the process.
The Agile Manifesto and its values
As mentioned, the term “Agile” — and, the mindset behind it — was first coined in the Agile Manifesto, created by a party of freethinking software practitioners, back in 2001. With their manifesto, they hoped to establish a solid set of values and principles that could lead to a better, more holistic approach to software development.
Indeed, the Agile Manifesto was a game-changer in the software development industry. In the years that followed, professionals across industries and disciplines came to realize the importance of an Agile mindset; and still do, to this day.
All in all, the foundation of the Agile Manifesto lies in four core values, which state:
1. User interaction over processes and tools
In the past, in order to build their software, most software teams concentrated on acquiring the best tools and processes they could come upon. When the Agile Manifesto was published, it showed them a different perspective; suggesting that, while tools and processes are indeed important, the people — who use the tools, and follow the processes — are the most important factor.
According to the Agile Development philosophy, having the right people in a software team is vital to the success of a product; whereas, using the best tools in the market, won’t do much; at least, not in unskilled hands.
Yet, above all, what defines the success of a product, even more, is how team members communicate with each other. Yes, a company may have the right people working on a project, but, how do these people interact with each other? That goes to say, a smooth interaction between team members is indicative of successful collaboration — which, in turn, is key to solving emerging problems, and creating a top-quality product.
2. Working software over detailed documentation (barely sufficient documentation)
Not long ago, developers would spend a lot of time creating piles of detailed documentation, full of descriptions and specifications; this was also known as the Description of Work (DoW). That was just the preliminary work, that is, before starting to write the actual code. In other words, they were splitting hairs, instead of working on what really matters. Documentation is certainly important to get started on the right foot; yet, customers do not care about documentation, they just want some working software up and running, asap.
The Agile Manifesto suggested that having the absolutely basic documentation prepared will suffice, to finally start writing the code. Besides, speeding up time-to-market is among the highest priorities for an agile team.
3. Collaboration over negotiation
Back in the day, contracts with customers was the game. These contracts would include a list of features and functionality, detailing the product to be delivered. However, as it often used to happen, there was a discrepancy between what the contract described, and what the customer actually received, as a final product. As one can gather, this created huge problems for both parties.
The Agile Manifesto came to turn the focus on continuous development, and maintaining a feedback loop with customers. Hence, there was a shift from exaggerated contracts and fruitless negotiations, to genuine collaboration between software companies and their customers. According to the Agile mindset, that was the only way for a software company to constantly ensure that their product brings value to the end-user, the customer.
4. Fast response to change, with short iterative cycles
Once, development teams would come up with a project roadmap and stick to it till the end. Nevertheless, such a static plan wasn’t sustainable in the dynamic environment of software development; it could not possibly meet the ever-changing needs and requirements of the market and the end-users.
Thanks to the Agile Manifesto, teams realized that a flexible plan — that includes short iterative cycles, reviewed say, from quarter to quarter — is essential for success. Put differently, they realized that, pivoting, and changing direction, whenever necessary, not only made them responsive, but also flexible; and, by extension, made their products robust and scalable.
Agile is a mindset with over 50 frameworks
As mentioned, the Agile Development mindset can support an Agile working environment. By term, this mindset requires agility, flexibility; hence, the frameworks that branch out of it, could not be anything less than dynamic. The whole Agile Manifesto could not fit in just one of them; it wouldn’t be agile if it did, would it?
That’s why, at this moment, there are more than fifty Agile frameworks, followed by teams all over the world. This means that professionals from different disciplines saw value in this mindset, and decided to make their own adjustments, by combining the Agile principles with other methods and approaches, to create hybrid Agile frameworks that fit their needs best.
What is Agile Software Development?
Similar to the broader term of Agile Development, Agile Software Development also draws on the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto to create top-quality software, fast. What separates Agile Software Development from other Agile approaches is the undivided attention to the development team and how they collaborate.
The software development industry was gravely affected by the phenomenon of compartmentalized ‘silos,’ for many years; in some cases, it still is. It was this chasm among different teams that allegedly worked towards a common goal, that brought failure upon software products — and oftentimes, entire software startups. The Agile mindset highlighted that the solution to this breakdown comes from the untroubled collaboration among cross-functional teams; and, from utilizing the appropriate practices and methodologies for efficient software development.
In software development, these methodologies not only aim to get software development teams to work together in harmony, but to also streamline collaboration with their customers.
The most common frameworks for Agile Software Development
Depending on the project a DevOps team is working on, they tend to use some framework of Agile development that can be most effectively applied; that is, both in development and operations. More often than not, in the world of SaaS, teams tend to use the basic Agile development frameworks described below:
The Kanban framework
Kanban is a widely used framework among teams that implement the Agile methodology in their everyday activities. It is a simple workflow management method, where tasks and work items are represented visually on a Kanban board, allowing team members to see their state, at any given time.
Kanban promotes transparency and straightforward communication; while encouraging continuous delivery, ongoing learning, and improvement by pinpointing the optimal workflow. Within this context, Kanban helps team members collaborate effectively, and manage projects holistically. Its most basic principles include steps to:
- Visualize today’s workflow
- Limit the amount of work in progress — up to 3 at the same time, or you’re doing it wrong
- Enhance workflow
- Continuous improvement
The SCRUM framework
The term is borrowed from American football. Scrum is a lightweight framework consisting of best practices, tools, roles, and rules — among other things. Used for managing software projects and application development, Scrum is specially designed to help teams address complex problems. At the same time, it helps increase their productivity, and deliver top-quality products. Its focus is on an adaptive software development process, where a cross-functional team works together to accomplish their defined goal within a Sprint; which typically lasts 2-4 weeks.
The Product road map
In short, the product roadmap is a day-by-day action plan, agreed upon by the team, regarding the progress of the product within a defined period of time. Typically, the roadmap outlines goals and milestones, tasks, releases of new features, resources, metrics, etc.
The Product backlog
The product backlog is nothing but a prioritized list of product components that the team needs to improve — based on the roadmap —, ideally by the next Sprint. Notably, the items are listed in order of priority; with the most important items depicted at the top of the backlog, so the team can be on the same page on what to deliver first. Clearly, then, the product backlog is not the same as the product roadmap.
The Sprint iterations
As mentioned, a Sprint based on Scrum lasts for a short period of time; wherein the team works towards completing the tasks, as recorded on the road map. In essence, the Sprint is an ongoing and repetitive process, where we break the product road map down into smaller parts, with smaller goals to accomplish. Αn important fact about Sprint iterations is that they allow the team to pivot quickly, if things do not go as planned — which is key to agility.
The Daily Sprint updates
During each Sprint, the team holds daily scrum meetings of short duration — usually fifteen minutes — facilitated by a Scrum master. In this daily Scrum meeting, the team focuses on inspecting progress towards the sprint goal, sharing updates and identifying obstacles to progress.
Lean Startup in Software Development
Although the Lean methodology maintains its hold in manufacturing, it has found new applications in the software development industry — in an effort to avoid unnecessary tasks, streamline processes and boost innovation. Today, following the Lean Startup mindset in Software Development, teams can identify the business value of a project — a feature, even — create a planned workflow and deliver a product that brings real value to customers, fast.
Of course, as it happens with all sound methodologies, the Lean Startup methodology comes with a set of principles to guide software development teams towards delivering meaningful features, and products, as quickly and effectively as possible.
Lean Startup helps teams to identify sources of waste early on, and eliminate them. What is considered waste in software development? Simply any task or activity that doesn’t bring (the desired) results; thus, anything we could bypass or don’t need yet. For example:
- Time the team spends on building code that they eventually drop, in the development process
- Defects and lower quality; therefore, extra time spent tweaking and fixing bugs
- Switching team members between tasks
- Features that customers do not use — or haven’t asked for yet
- Too much paperwork, etc.
Amplifying learning or Innovation Accounting
If anything, software development is a continuous learning process. The second principle comes to verify this fact; and even take it a step further, using metrics to measure the progress that stems from learning. Besides, according to the Lean Startup philosophy, continuous learning — and implementation — is the road that leads to innovation.
Defer commitment (deciding on specifications as late as possible)
This Lean principle is all about keeping options open, to increase flexibility and avoid failure. All the more so in software development, where the factor of uncertainty is ever-present. To elaborate, the deferring commitment principle simply states that deferring decisions, as much as possible, until we can validate assumptions or predictions, brings better results. What’s more, the iterative approach of Lean Startup — as well as Agile Development — promotes this principle. It offers a chance to adapt to changes, correct mistakes, and mitigate the risk brought on by developing a highly ambitious, up-front product.
Early delivery, early knowledge
Today’s digital reality is all about the ‘survival of the fastest’, and Software Development based on Lean Startup has already shown that the ‘early bird gets the worm’. Indeed, the sooner the product hits the market, without major bugs, the sooner the team will receive feedback from users, to incorporate into the next iteration. Also, the faster the iterations, the more — and potentially better — the learning; which can provide the team a head start or an edge, with relation to the competition.
Empowering the team with knowledge sharing (knowledge of the market)
Lean Startup based Software Development follows the fifth Agile principle:
“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
According to this principle, the old-school model of micromanaging the team will not do in this new business reality. People need to find meaning in their jobs, a purpose to strive for — which should be compatible with their personal lives; they do not need companies and managers to keep telling them how to do their work. Instead, companies should provide employees access to knowledge; knowledge of the market, the customer, their line of work. Team managers should also offer support, whenever necessary; and motivate them, to keep morale high, and stir things up.
Building and ensuring product integrity
On one hand, product integrity — in Lean Startup, too — means that the product’s separate components work well together, as a whole. On the other hand, it means that the customer gains a wholesome experience; a product that is intuitive — or effective, at least — in solving problems. Ideally, the process doesn’t stop here, as the team needs to ensure and maintain integrity through continuous monitoring and testing.
Optimize. Rinse. Repeat
This last principle acknowledges the need to take a holistic view of the software development process and make improvements across the board. If the team is to achieve overall effectiveness, everything — every component, every tool, process and task — should get under the microscope and get optimized.
The Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery Deployment pipeline (CI/CD)
The Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery deployment pipeline (CI/CD) is a twofold process that software development teams follow, to become more Agile during the Build and Deployment phases of a product.
Though CI and CD are commonly lumped together, practically speaking, they’re two distinct — yet successive — stages in a software development lifecycle. To briefly explain, in Continuous Integration, the team incorporates new code into the build. While, in Continuous Delivery, the team uses automation tools and processes, to take the code from the development stage into the production stage. The whole idea behind the CI/CD deployment pipeline is to speed up the delivery of high-quality software to customers.
Agile Development and User Experience (UX)
User Experience goes hand in hand with Agile Development, as both approaches are solution-driven, and share many values and principles; for instance, iterations, continuous testing, collaboration, customer feedback, etc.
Therefore, it’s quite natural for software development teams to incorporate User Experience practices into the Agile Development pipeline. Subsequently, Agile User Experience fuses Agile Development with design, and customer interaction. This harmonic fusion adds to the iterative approach, both to the development of the product and its design. As a result, teams can collaborate much better, reaching out to customers for feedback, and improving features.
Who are the stakeholders in Agile?
In Agile Development, collaboration among the people participating in the development of a product — thus, affecting its progress, and even its viability — is of utmost importance. In this respect, stakeholders — and their overall involvement in a project, and engagement with their assigned roles — are key for developing and delivering quality software. So far so good, but who are these stakeholders?
In Agile Development a stakeholder can be anyone who has an interest in the project, is focused on the desirable results, and contributes to achieving them. Among others, stakeholders may be:
- The Customer — being the end-user, their feedback can greatly help improve a product
- The Software Vendor — always focusing on providing quality solutions
- The Development Teams — including developers and engineers, UX designers, etc.
- The Product Manager — identifying the customer’s unmet needs, and translating them into intuitive product features
- The Project Manager — planning and overlooking all the activities for the fruition of the project
- The C-Level Executives (internal or external) — providing a sound strategy, and making critical decisions on timing, budget, etc.
The benefits of Agile Development in Business
To the Customer
In Agile Development, we engage customers in the evolution of a product. It’s their feedback that allows Agile teams to review, analyze, and further improve it. That way, we improve the user experience, too. That means, the customer not only feels we’ve listened to their requests but, also, that they’re helping shape a meaningful product. In the end, it’s that product that solves their problems.
To the Software vendor
When it comes to the software vendor, following the Agile Development approach, they can focus on:
- developing high-value features,
- decrease overhead,
- increase efficiency, and
- reduce time-to-market.
The result? Customer satisfaction and customer retention.
To Development teams
In Agile Development, as mentioned, the development teams work in sprints. After every sprint, they discuss what is complete, and what is up for development next. This helps streamline the development process, and also helps team members collaborate more efficiently. Ultimately, team members become more productive and feel that their work has a purpose.
To the Product manager
Product managers — also known as Product Owners — are responsible to ensure alignment between any development on the product and customer needs. Agile Development helps them achieve that, by providing frequent opportunities to re-prioritize tasks, in order to meet customers’ expectations.
To the Project manager
Above all, the focus on the Agile Development approach, provides Project managers with complete awareness as to the state of the project, at any given time. This automatically helps them:
- streamline project planning,
- gain control, and
- be proactive, by promptly catching and addressing issues.
To C-Level Executives
Undoubtedly, Agile Development provides high visibility into a project, and how it progresses, day by day. C-Level executives make the most of this fact to:
- plan more effectively,
- adjust their strategies,
- avoid speculation,
- allocate the budget better, and
- make the best possible decisions.
The disadvantages of Agile Development
Despite the host of benefits that Agile Development offers, it’s not without its challenges, limitations, and even risks. Because of that, it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls that may occasionally occur when adopting the Agile methodology and its frameworks; it’s the only way to avoid them.
Keeping the 10 disadvantages of Agile Development listed below in mind, will certainly help see the warning signs in time:
- With time, the collaboration among different teams can be difficult to maintain
- Due to the limited documentation the Agile dictates, important information may get sidelined
- Limited documentation may also make it harder for new team members to catch up with the rest of the team
- It’s difficult to measure progress, due to several cycles and iterations
- A lot of time — and energy — might be unreasonably spent, as a result of the constant interaction between developers and customers
- The focus on innovation may mislead teams into delivering new functionality, increasing the amount of unplanned work
- Projects may end up lasting longer than initially planned — which makes sense, if important, useful, unforeseen changes are made to the road map
- Long-term projects may bring about incremental delivery, with detrimental consequences both on the development team and the customers
- If not done right, the more time passes, the more incohesive the software may become, which may negatively affect user experience
- Agile cycles, short as they are, may not leave enough room for creativity, so the team might lose interest
Transforming workflows from Waterfall to Agile
Even though we use both the Agile and Waterfall models for software development, they’re two very different methods. The Waterfall model is a 40-year-old approach to developing software. Through the years, it helped development teams structure their work, for sure; but so much has changed in the world of software development since then. Beyond that, Waterfall is all about discipline, where developers need to strictly follow a rigid path of development throughout the product life cycle. This renders it a somewhat myopic method that can’t accommodate change and adjustments. They might end up taking months or even years to develop a product that no one will eventually want to buy.
On the flipside, Agile is much closer to modern reality. Versatility, and adaptability to change are very important here; as are people, and the way they collaborate, in order to deliver solutions. Speeding up the time-to-market also plays a significant role in Agile, because customers require a solution — the right solution, mind you — at the time they face a problem; or else, they’ll just find the solution somewhere else.
All these facts have made software-driven companies and their teams very interested in the Agile Development mindset. Nonetheless, it’s one thing to think of transforming workflows from Waterfall to Agile, and another actually doing it. How can a team make a successful transition from Waterfall to Agile with minimum friction? Let’s find out!
What is the Waterfall model?
Invented in 1970, the Waterfall model was revolutionary, because it offered some much-needed discipline to software development. Soon, it became the gold standard in the industry. So, what is the Waterfall model, and why do modern development teams seem to slowly turn away from it?
The term “Waterfall” imaginatively describes a classical software development model that follows a linear and sequential top-down approach. In other words, the very term is quite indicative of the model nature; meaning that everything is developed systematically — from one stage to the next — in a downward fashion. Just as you’d read a document.
Having said that, the model is divided into different stages, where the output of one stage is used as input to the next. Moreover, every stage has a clearly defined beginning and ending. The team has to complete a stage before the next (in line) begins — there should be no overlapping of the phases.
At first glance, it seems like the Waterfall model provides a ‘firm ground’, with clear specs to follow when developing software; why would a team decide to abort it in the first place?
- Demands too much documentation
- Excludes the customer from the development process; the customer can only see the end product; nothing up-front
- The product, therefore, never hits the testing stage, until after its completion
- Doesn’t support making changes; if any changes have to be made, the whole project may have to start again — much of it will, indeed, have to be refactored
- Makes customization difficult, as a consequence of that
- Developers are not part of the requirement and planning process
- Delivery times can be very long; increasing the amount of risk (competition, budget, relevance)
- Impossible to measure progress within each stage
Transforming to Agile Development
Most software-driven companies, today, are transitioning from the traditional linear Waterfall model to the iterative Agile frameworks. And for good reason: Agile can help a team become proactive, and it can accelerate time to market, improve product quality and relevance, boost customer experience and promote innovation.
Be that as it may, the road to Agile Development is often paved with obstacles — from indisposition to cultural shift, to skills shortages, etc. — that the team must overcome to achieve greater agility. In addition to that, there’s the misconception that Agile Development is just a process. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Agile Development is so much more than a methodology; it’s a force to be reckoned with, as it brings radical changes within companies, and teams.
So, generally, to enable a smooth Agile Development transformation, companies need to consider:
- Investing in training, to help establish the Agile mindset and practices
- Identifying business needs early on and highlighting the value proposition
- Establishing strong communication among teams and team members
- Fostering cross-team collaboration
- Leveraging automation
- Integrating the right processes and the right tools for them
- Staying flexible and adaptive, no matter what
Rather than just a method for software development, the Agile Development methodology is an umbrella term for a whole set of frameworks and practices, and it draws upon the values and principles expressed in the Agile Manifesto. Agile came to propose an overall different way for managing software development projects; having already transformed not only the software industry itself, but also the experience end-users have with a product in its entire lifecycle.
The Agile Development approach highly depends on harmonious collaboration between cross-functional teams and the utilization of the appropriate tools and practices. It helps gain new perspective into what makes for efficient software development, in the era of Digital Revolution. It encourages teams to dive into the illuminating process of developing a scalable Minimum Viable Product, and keep the ‘Build – deploy – monitor – measure – fix or pivot’ loop going. All, while retaining control of the product.
However, losing control is easy, in Agile. That goes to say, every company and team might stray from their path, if they don’t keep their focus on their needs — and their customers’ needs, for that matter — as well as their goals. Agile is beguiling, and its promises can get everyone feeling overly excited and optimistic; often, ending up losing the point, or getting carried away into labyrinthine paths, chasing innovation — but to no avail.
Nonetheless, Agile Development is too important to pass up; especially today, when companies need robust, revolutionary software to deliver premium digital experiences. At the end of the day, Agile Development is how companies will get there.