Agile working: what is it actually?

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Agile working, you have probably heard of it. Just like with terms like agile coach, agile training, agile scrum, and so on. But what does it mean and what is agile working actually?


Agile working literally means ‘flexible’ or ‘viable’ working. And agile working is an important theme of this century. Due to globalization and rapid technological developments, such as the advent of the internet, customer wishes are changing at an ever faster pace.

This makes it a challenge for many teams and companies to stay competitive. Agile, agile organizations adapt faster to changing market conditions and are therefore more likely to survive and grow.

Classic examples of companies that changed their approach insufficiently quickly and were therefore miserably lost are Nokia, Kodak, Xerox, IBM, BlackBerry, Polaroid and V&D. If you look close to home in your own shopping street, you will see the same pattern: shops that often open in good spirits but often close their doors again quickly.

Many of these companies could have survived if they had started working agile in time. But what is agile working?

The emergence of Agile working: adaptive project management

To stay one step ahead of the competition, organizations had been looking for ways to be more agile long before the concept of ‘Agile working’ existed.

At the end of the last century, for example, a lot of thought was given to new ways of making adjustments more easily during projects: ‘Adaptive project management’.

This made it possible to respond better to fluctuating market conditions. In such a way that the end result is more relevant and valuable for the customer and end user.

Different ways of adaptive project management

Due to the rapid development of the IT industry at the end of the last century, this was logically one of the first fields in which new methods for adaptive project management were devised and tested.

Just a few of the large number of methods that have been developed over time are: Crystal, DSDM (Dynamic Systems Development Method), XP (eXtreme Programming), FDD (Feature Driven Development), ASD.

And yes, Scrum too.

Unlike other Agile methods, Scrum did not originate from software development in 1986, but emerged from comparative business research [1].

More about that in a future blog.

From different methods to an overarching vision

At the end of the last century there were already a lot of different methods for adaptive project management.

Agile working and the resulting agile methods stem from the ‘Agile Manifesto’.

This manifesto, which began as “Software Manifesto for Agile Development”[2], was conceived around a fire at the Snowbird ski resort in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in the winter of February 2001.

It arose because the participants of the meeting, after undoubtedly a day of snow fun, tried to formulate a common vision for the various adaptive methods that had been developed up to that point.

Scrum, for example, saw the light of day as a concept at the end of the previous century in 1986.

The Agile manifesto briefly describes four prioritizing values ​​and thirteen related principles.

“People and their interaction over processes and tools

Working products/services over extensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiations

Responding to change over following a plan”

Freely translated, according to the manifesto, organizations work ‘agile’ if they: develop new products and/or services in close collaboration with their customer and thus respond flexibly to changing market conditions during development.

They do this because they prioritize people and their interactions over processes and tools and through an explicit focus on delivering added value for the customer, the end user.

The Agile Manifesto is thus the overarching vision or thought that brings together the various adaptive project management methods developed separately over time under one heading.

Agile working is therefore a vision for organizing people’s collaboration. Agile working and the agile methods that have arisen have various characteristics when implemented in the right way in an organization: from agile management to agile teams in day-to-day business operations.

Features Agile organizations: small self-managing teams

Agile organizations often work in small independent multidisciplinary teams that work in short cycles on relatively small tasks and receive continuous feedback from the ultimate customer or end user.

Have you ever been involved in a small team where communication is effortless and the group seems to think and act as one?

Such an agile team can analyze a situation, make a choice and act as if it were a single continuous flow


The A Team!

No supervisor tells them what to do. They trust the other team members.

That trust is rewarded when they perform.

It’s almost as if the group has a mind of its own. Direct conversations resolve all differences of opinion.

Working in such an agile team is great fun, if that suits you.

Characteristics of Agile organizations: strong customer focus

Agile organizations focus strongly on delivering value to customers.

Globalization, deregulation and new technologies, especially the Internet, offered the customer choices. Choices based on reliable information about these choices and the ability to interact with other suppliers.

Suddenly the customer was in charge and expected this value to come to him directly and without any effort.

In today’s competitive market, where customers expect immediate, trusted answers, a bureaucratic approach is becoming less and less effective.

The customer thinks: “Why should I wait? If you don’t deliver it now, I’ll find someone else who will.”

In a hierarchical bureaucracy, “the customer is number one” is really just a slogan. In true Agile organizations with agile management and agile teams, everyone is passionate and obsessed about delivering more value to customers.

Everyone in the organization has a clear view of the ultimate customer and can see how their work adds value to that customer – or not.

Characteristics of Agile organisations: the organization as a network

Agile organizations try to organize the organization as a transparent network of employees who work together towards a common goal of happy customers.

Hierarchical organizations often operate like a gigantic oil tanker: large and efficient, but slow and difficult to maneuver.

When the entire organization embraces Agile, the organization looks less like a giant ship, and more like a fleet of small speedboats.

Instead of a stationary machine, the organization is an organic living network of self-managing teams. The entire organization, including the top, is obsessed with delivering more value to customers.

Agile teams take the initiative themselves and work together with other Agile teams to solve common problems. Agile management also offers the teams this freedom.

How organizations can start working Agile

Agile working seems ideal, is necessary in many cases, but is not easy.

Certainly not for the larger organizations.

For example, organizations that want to work Agile because of their competitive position often choose a framework or method. Scrum is the most generic Agile method. It is therefore the most chosen.

And because Scrum is more of a framework than a method, many different types of implementations of Scrum have emerged over time, each of which meets specific needs of companies.

The question is what the meaning of agile working is for a specific organization. How is it implemented correctly and how does it align with the goals of the organization?

More about that in a later blog.

Agile working: in summary

Agile working means agile working. Agile working of organizations meets the rapidly changing market requirements of today.

In order to grow and remain competitive, organizations therefore want to work in an agile, agile way.

Working in Agile involves multidisciplinary teams that realize products and services in close cooperation and with a strong customer focus in short development cycles.

Agile working is a vision. To put that vision into practice, organizations use Agile methods. One of the most used Agile methods is Scrum.


Sources and references:

Harvard Business Review, the new new product development game:
Agile Manifesto:
Denning, S. Explaining agile -Forbes magazine, September 8, 2016-

By: Merijn Visman