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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Agile isn’t a methodology, it’s a way of working,” or “It’s a mindset,” or “It’s an approach.”

One could argue that those words are just synonyms for methodology, but the die-hard agile heads will often say it’s not; that the mindset informs the many methodologies that fall under its umbrella (Scrum, Kanban, and so on).

Are you getting heated yet? Ready to jump into our mentions with your own critical take, reply- guy-style? There have been numerous arguments, er, debates, on this topic, in our own comment sections and elsewhere on the web. Maybe even in your own org’s boardrooms?

It’s time to decide once and for all: is agile a methodology or not? I talked to seven experts in agile and in project management to get a definitive answer.

The Case For Agile As A Methodology

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that agile is complicated. As Sally Shaughnessy explains, “it requires:

  • Prioritizing progress over perfection (try selling that to a client)
  • Prototypes over planning and documentation (hard for project managers and strategists)
  • Story points and velocity over days and dollars (explain that to a budget owner)”

But there is plenty of disagreement about how it’s used in practice—is it a methodology or a mindset?

Agile is often casually referred to as a methodology. There are plenty of tweets, posts, stories, talking up the ‘benefits of agile methodology’ or how ‘the agile methodology is a money and time suck’ or how ‘powerful and useful the agile methodology is.’ The hashtag #agilemethodology is a popular one. 

Here are a few thoughts on why it’s so common to refer to agile as a methodology.

Confusion Over Scrum and Agile

There’s a tendency to use Scrum and agile interchangeably, even though they aren’t the same thing. This is probably because Scrum is the most popular methodology under the agile umbrella.

While Scrum may be agile, agile isn’t Scrum:

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Botched Implementation

Organizations that try to undergo an agile transformation without proper change management processes in place run the risk of misrepresenting agile to the project team members and other employees who are actually carrying out the work.

This leaves team members resentful of agile, which in their minds translates to more pointless meetings, more oversight and micromanagement, and a push to get things done faster and with less resources (which we all know everyone just loves).

by u/Dogbeast from discussion What is Agile and why is it important?
in learnprogramming

‘Doing’ Agile vs ‘Being’ Agile

Those that argue that agile is a mindset rather than a methodology will often talk about their organizations and teams as ‘being agile’ rather than ‘doing agile.’

Teams that are just ‘doing agile’ aren’t tapped into the why behind what they are doing. Instead of ‘being agile’ and adhering to the way agile is laid out in the Agile Manifesto, they’re following a set of practices (i.e., a methodology) without thinking about why the methodology is set up in that particular way.

So when teams are ‘doing agile’ they are thinking of it the way they would a methodology—a set of processes and practices that are meant to produce a certain outcome, rather than as a mindset about how to work. 

Here’s an illustrative response to a question about whether agile is supposed to be a to-do list broken down into smaller units of work and assigned within sprints, but without using retrospectives or iteration.

by u/TheNegroSuave from discussion When agile is not agile
in agile

The Case For Agile As A Mindset

So, why are agile evangelists so insistent that it’s not a methodology, even though many people seem to default to referring to it that way?

Liz Lockhart Lance, Chief of Staff at Performica, argues that “Agile is not a singular methodology. Agile is a mindset rooted in the Agile Manifesto, where four values and twelve principles guide the thinking and decision making of individuals engaged in collaboration to develop new solutions, software, products, etc.”

If you’ve read the Agile Manifesto, you’ll know that the values and principles Lance is referring to don’t spell out a specific set of practices or procedures that must be completed by those using an agile way of working. 

Instead, as she puts it: “An agilist exercising Agile as a mindset will be open to change and learning, they will be people-focused and value collaboration at their core.”

Many of the existing methodologies that sit under the agile umbrella do spell out specific practices and processes that are in service of this mindset, but again, the Agile Manifesto isn’t specific about how organizations and teams should actually ‘do agile.’ 

Sarah Hoban, Senior Director, Program Management Office at Aura, agrees. “I’d describe agile as more of a mindset than a methodology …You don’t have to follow a prescribed set of processes to be agile. 

“Rather, agile is an approach that you apply to solve problems. It’s about iterating on a problem until you find the solution that works best to meet your customer’s needs within the timeframe and budget that you have available,” she adds.

As Hoban highlights, iteration is the key to agile. Both the Agile Manifesto and individual agile methodologies encourage iteration. Once you’re in the space of working iteratively, pumping out MVPs, and not being too precious about getting everything right the first time, you’re working using an agile mindset, no matter whether you’re following Scrum processes or Kanban processes.

Eric Risner ACP ®, Founder of Rise Up Leadership, notes that agile is about letting the situation or project guide how the team works. “The word ‘agile’ is the philosophy of approaching a project in the manner that best suits the situation. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all agile methodology in project management, as different activities require different approaches.”

While the Agile Manifesto can be seen as pretty abstract, Risner brings us back to putting agile into practice through the variety of agile methodologies that fall under that large umbrella. 

Melding Mindset And Practice

Jesse Fewell, Founder & CEO at the agile consulting firm Fewell Innovation, argues that agile must combine both the agile mindset and the practice of ‘doing agile.’ 

His argument is that when organizations try to undertake agile transformation, they need to focus equally on changing org culture and team mindsets and on the actual tactics and steps they’ll take to make the agile transformation a success.

In his words: “Real magic happens when you intentionally blend the best of both cultural conversations and structural steps … both the agile mindset and the agile mechanics [go] hand in hand.”

So, agile is not a methodology; it is a mindset. The Agile Manifesto provides a mindset to work by, yes, but, as each of our experts noted in some form or another, teams and organizations still need processes and procedures to get things done. Ultimately what matters is how people are using agile in practice.

Computer Scientist Allen Holub sums it up quite nicely:

Agile Culture Matters Too

DPM Co-Founder Galen Low stresses that a culture of agile is important as well, beyond just the agile mindset: “The thing we need to remember about Agile is that the Agile Manifesto ignited a revolution in the way software development projects were being run circa 2001. 

“Now that we’re 20+ years on, we take for granted the rebellious and innovative spirit of it all, and we get stuck trying to see if we’re following all the rules correctly. There were no rules in the manifesto, just guiding principles and shared values,” he says “Agile is a culture as much as it is a mindset.”

In a recent podcast episode with Dave Prior, a senior consultant at Leading Agile, Prior echoed something similar, in reference to agencies specifically: “People talk about culture all the time with agile, like you have to lead with culture and culture’s really important, but if you don’t create an environment in which something like Scrum can survive, it’s not going to work … If you don’t create the space in which it can grow, it’s not going to work.”

Our Official Take: Agile Is A Mindset (And More)

So, yes, agile is a mindset, but it’s also a culture and environment that everyone on the team has to buy into for it to work. 

It’s mostly decidedly not a methodology alone. Without the agile mindset and culture, agile procedures lose their intended value.

As Shaughnessy notes: “Embracing Agile is beneficial…It brings teams together. It empowers communication and possibility, sees the benefits of failure, and relies on end-user needs which, at the end of the day, is all we are trying to achieve: building products that meet user needs in a thoughtful, intuitive way.”

What Do You Think?

Do you consider agile a methodology or a mindset? Maybe the bigger question here is whether agile is actually any good (and there’s no shortage of debate here either).

For more on the big questions in project management, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter, or join other digital project managers in our Slack community to continue the conversation!

By Nuala Turner

Nuala is the Editor of The Digital Project Manager. Her background is in content strategy, content production, and managing projects. She brings a strong editorial eye and a passion for connecting with experts in the field and teasing out their stories, as well as ensuring digital project managers are winning at work and smashing projects out of the park.