What is Agile? Is it a set of practices, a set of values, or a set of mind—or some combination of the three? Is it “Doing Agile” or “Being Agile?”

Is agile defined by a checklist of offered practices—the Nokia test for Scrum, or checking 9 of 12 practice boxes for XP?

Is agile a mindset, an amalgamation of adaptation, embracing change, transparency, collaboration, complex systems theory, or courage?

Is agile the frequent delivery of high quality customer value while effectively adapting to change, regardless of specific practices? (Ken Collier)

The right-brained and the left-brained are alive and well in this debate. Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) refers to this as L-directed thinking, “sequential, literal, functional, textual, and analytic,” versus R-directed thinking, “simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic.” This agile definition debate is a classic one that pits these two halves of ourselves against each other.

Is agile a management style, one that encourages self-organization, servant leadership, controlled chaos, or light-touch management?

Is agile a set of technical practices—iterative development, refactoring, coding standards, pair programming, or test-driven development?

Is agile a methodology or a set of core values and guiding principles?

There are many people and organizations who want a prescriptive, non-ambiguous definition of agile (or Scrum or XP or …). They are the L-directed thinkers, the ones who still want predictable plans and measures for the un-measurable. Conversely, there are those who insist that agile is a state of mind, a style of management, a wisp of content and a whisper of context.

And, there are those who are comfortable in-between—realizing that while at one level agile might be evaluated by a core set of practices, the essence of agile involves more philosophy than tutorial.

Is agile a set of rules established by some prescient guru, or an adaptive learning process that uses rules merely as a starting point?

Is agile a transcendent concept for bringing purpose, meaning, satisfaction, and fun to work?

The motto of the Scrum Alliance, “Transforming the World of Work,” speaks to agile’s wider purpose and meaning. In the final chapter of Adaptive Software Development I make two statements about work:

“People want to succeed; given the right environment, people motivate themselves to heroic achievements.

The right environment is one of adaptation through self-organization.”

In its search for purpose and meaning the core of agile has a secular spirituality feel to it. This core is why thousands upon thousands of individuals have signed the Agile Manifesto. It’s why hundreds of thousands around the world have embraced agile—even though they can’t quite define it.

Agile is one of those illusive things that the harder you try to grasp it, the more it slips through your fingers.

For me, the day we explicitly define agile, is the day it becomes sterile and lifeless.

For me, the day agile becomes whatever someone wants it to be, is the day it becomes useless.

For me, agile is a whole-minded philosophy, one that combines the left-brained and the right-brained—balancing on the precarious edge between the literal and the metaphysical, between performance and meaning. We need to revel in that balance and ambiguity, not try to define away its awe, grandeur, and paradox.

Jim Highsmith