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Agile Methodology: How It Works and Why It Matters

In software development, flexibility reigns king, which  is just part of why Agile has changed the nature of the field. Do you know where it came from and why it's so popular?
Daniel Zacharias

Daniel Zacharias

August 1, 2022
Using Agile methodologies in software development

AT&T. Barclays Bank. Cisco. Fitbit. IBM. Microsoft. 

These companies are just a handful among  many companies worldwide  that use an Agile methodology in their projects. And that’s with good reason: the enormously popular approach to software development and project management allows businesses of all kinds to deliver higher quality products efficiently and productively while staying up to date in an ever-changing, highly competitive environment. 

In software development, flexibility reigns king, which  is just part of why Agile has changed the nature of the field. How is this methodology — or rather, a series of methodologies — making its mark on the technology world and beyond?

Why was Agile created?

In 2001, a group of software developers determined and signed the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This marked the launch of the approach, which has grown and evolved significantly since that time, more than 20 years ago. 

The group represented the Agile Alliance, which recognized that complex projects took  too long to complete and that software developers struggled  through hiccups during the process. Many projects were failing altogether. The commonly accepted approach for software development at the time was Waterfall, and the Agile Alliance created the new methodology as a more flexible, innovative alternative to the traditional framework.

Early on, Agile was used almost exclusively for software development projects. Now, however, it is a common approach for project management across multiple industries and niches, from marketing to finance to construction and beyond.

How Agile works

Agile is based on the idea of change. The approach responds  to the concept that software development needs to be adaptive — it takes place in an ever-evolving landscape. Because of the uncertainty surrounding software building, the team must work quickly and productively, pivoting when need be — which happens with some frequency.

In Agile, the project is broken up into incremental phases. Teams work to complete these phrases and constantly evaluate and reevaluate their work to ensure quality and improvement at every stage. 

Meanwhile, the team puts the client and stakeholders at the center of the process, frequently informing them of progress. They also prioritize collaboration, working together to ensure that they are delivering high-value software.

Typically, there are six stages within the Agile lifecycle, which may vary depending on the specific project and team. They are:

  1. Concept
  2. Inception
  3. Iteration
  4. Release
  5. Maintenance/production
  6. Retirement

The Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto outlines four values governing Agile methodologies. They are:

• Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
• Working software over comprehensive documentation
• Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
• Responding to change over following a plan

There are also 12 principles in the Manifesto. These principles concern the customer’s satisfaction, the response to change, the value of collaboration and communication, and the focus on continual improvement and progress, among other beliefs and ideas.

Agile methodologies

Several Agile methodologies are commonly used today and here are three of the most widely used approaches within the larger umbrella.

Scrum

Scrum is by far the most favored Agile approach. According to the 15th Annual State of Agile Report (2021), two-thirds of respondents said it was the Agile methodology they followed most closely, and another 15% said they followed derivations of it.

Scrum is the Agile approach of choice for cross-functional teamwork. Normally, applied to complex projects, it is organized into roles, events, and artifacts. The roles include the product owner, Scrum Master, and developers. 

Central to Scrum is the sprint. This is a short cycle during which the team completes a specific amount of work in a fixed period of time. The team finishes a number of sprints toward meeting the larger Product Goal.

Kanban

You may already be familiar with the Kanban board, a chart or table divided into a series of columns that allow team members to visualize the tasks that comprise a project workflow. Kanban is a Lean approach that defines and enables team members to organize workflows. The board is a critical part of the methodology, keeping everyone involved informed about progress and updates. 

As with other Agile methodologies, communication, collaboration, and transparency are critical to Kanban. Additional features include the need to prioritize tasks and limit the amount of work in progress at any given time.

Extreme Programming (XP)

In contrast to several other Agile approaches, XP is specific to software development. Its goal is to improve workflows facing complex requirements, tight deadlines, and changing circumstances and needs.

XP attempts to simplify the development process, emphasizing values such as:

• Communication
• Courage
• Feedback
• Respect
• Simplicity

Customer satisfaction is the most critical facet of XP. To that end, the team must always accept changes to requirements and circumstances. Testing is also necessary — the development team tests regularly from the very beginning to ensure the overall quality.

Why Agile matters

Agile has grown into the approach of choice for development teams and other project teams worldwide. It’s clear that this practice brings numerous advantages, including:

• Improved stakeholder engagement
• Greater communication and collaboration
• Continuous improvement
• Higher-value products
• More predictable timelines and costs
• Efficiency and productivity
• Greater flexibility
• A capability to adapt to an ever-changing environment
• More transparency throughout the project lifecycle

All individuals involved in the project (leaders, team members, clients, and stakeholders) win by breaking down silos and focusing on value, collaboration, and flexibility.

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