Understanding Agile Software Development

Agile and agility are two commonly used words in software development today.

Agile originated with the “Agile Manifesto” which is a set of values and principles laid out by a group of software development leaders in 2001. Those values and principles have had a profound impact on the way software development teams and, increasingly, entire organizations, work together to deliver value to customers.

While agile started in the technology industry, increasingly, business and management leaders talk about the need for organizations to be agile.

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What is Agile software development?

Agile software development is an iterative and flexible approach to managing and delivering software projects. It emphasizes collaboration, adaptability, and continuous improvement throughout the development process.

The Agile methodology aims to enhance customer satisfaction by delivering working software in shorter, incremental cycles, known as sprints or iterations.

When people talk about agile software development methodologies, they often refer to approaches focused on:

  1. Working in short iterations;
  2. Meeting frequently for short periods;
  3. Visualizing their work;
  4. Collaborating across business and technology functions;
  5. Building applications as small functional components;

When to use Agile software development

Most teams benefit from using agile software development methods regardless of the nature of their work. Agile is especially beneficial when teams are creating a new product or process or when teams are focused on driving organizational change.

In some cases, a traditional waterfall approach may be best, for example, when implementing a packaged software solution that requires adherence to clearly defined, sequential steps.


Waterfall vs. Agile.

Each team should use their own knowledge, experience, and expertise to determine the best approach, whether agile or waterfall, to achieve success, but should be careful not to fall back on traditional approaches because they are easy or familiar.

Benefits of Agile software development

Traditional software development used a “waterfall” approach where teams would define everything at the start of a project, then build it, then give it to customers. The problem with that approach, especially in today’s fast-moving, digital world, is that by the time customers receive the product, tastes and technology often change making products obsolete.

In contrast to the waterfall approach, agile software development methods aim to define the specific software requirements weeks or days before it is built rather than defining everything ahead of time.

Here are some of the benefits of embracing Agile development:

  • Faster time to market: agile methodologies rely on shorter development cycles, frequently integrating customer feedback. By continuously testing, releasing, and iterating, agile software development provides a more efficient approach that reduces time to market. This helps developers improve revenue and gain a competitive advantage by getting a product to market before their competitors do.
  • Increased efficiency: agile software development is known for its streamlined and efficient process. Development teams work collaboratively, with more significant involvement from stakeholders across the process. Agile works best when the development team and the stakeholders, with varying skills, communicate together throughout the project. This frequent collaboration helps to catch and address potential issues early on in the development cycle. This results in a more efficient process with fewer errors and better quality.
  • Cost-effective: agile methodology has a reputation for being cost-effective. With agile software development, teams break down projects into smaller pieces, allowing for more granular budgeting, planning, and testing of each component. With a more focused and continuous approach to project planning, teams can deliver product features and functions more efficiently, avoiding waste and increasing their return on investment (ROI).
  • Improved quality: agile software development prioritizes testing and iteration. Every feature or component is tested immediately after it is developed, ensuring that no issues go unnoticed or unaddressed. Teams can quickly identify issues, allowing them to resolve these problems as quickly as possible. Developers can identify problems earlier in the agile development cycle, where they can be fixed more efficiently than if they were left undetected until the product's release. This results in better quality products and more satisfied end-users.
  • Adaptability and flexibility: agile software development involves frequent reassessment and adjustment. As part of an agile approach, teams can revisit what they are developing and re-prioritize where necessary. Iterations take place frequently, allowing for changes to be made when needed, even if the product is close to completion. This flexibility ensures that the development process is always aligned with the product goals and expectations of customers.

Agile software development methodology

What do we mean by agile software development methods exactly?

Teams adopt a wide range of strategies and approaches to implement an agile software development methodology, and call themselves “agile”. However, in the case of software development, people frequently use these terms incorrectly.

They confuse the broadly defined values and principles which guide our behavior in the Agile Manifesto with specific frameworks, like Scrum and Kanban, or customized approaches that bear no resemblance to Agile.

The real value and beauty of Agile is that there is not a single, prescriptive guide or framework for digital teams to follow in order to achieve agility. Agile is not a single book or training course which will magically transform your team.

While many great frameworks and methodologies exist to help you along the way, teams can find their own agile software development process and adapt it to meet the unique needs of their organizations, industries, and customer needs.

Step one in achieving agility requires establishing the correct mindset. Agile requires flexibility and trust and open-mindedness intensely focused on the goal of achieving customer value frequently.

Agile software development frameworks

Agile is not a single framework or methodology. There is not a single book that you can read or steps you can follow to “become agile”. This is both the challenge and the opportunity to achieve success with Agile.

Let’s take a quick look into each of these frameworks.

  • Scrum: a popular framework for solving complex problems and providing a structure for teams to deliver high-value software products.
  • Kanban: it’s not considered a methodology or framework, however, teams frequently use elements of Kanban to improve their performance.
  • Scrumban: it takes parts of Scrum and Kanban to form a hybrid approach. Its implementation can vary widely.
  • Lean Agile (Lean Software Development): not a framework itself, its principles are often used in conjunction with scrum and kanban.
  • Extreme Programming: a development methodology focused on building in short development cycles to reduce the cost of changes in requirements.
  • Agile at Scale: agile at scale frameworks include Nexus, SAFe, Scrum at Scale, LeSS, Disciplined Agile, and others.

To learn more, visit our article about the most popular Agile frameworks.

Building high-performing Agile teams

Building high-performing, customer-focused Agile teams does not happen by accident. It starts with finding individuals with the right mindset to succeed with agile. Team members on a high-performing Agile team answer an emphatic “yes” to the following questions:

  • Are you flexible and open to change?
  • Can you collaborate across functions?
  • Can you learn continuously?
  • Do you have a level of trust?
  • Can you communicate openly and honestly?
  • Are you comfortable being part of a team?

Before starting a project, take time to find the best individuals who have the right mindset so you are able to quickly turn them into a high-performing agile team.

Once you have the right individuals, it’s critical to define, as a group, your shared goals and expected way of working based on agile principles. With that framework in place, teams can start their Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development.

As they evolve through the Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing stages, agile teams share many similar characteristics and have found ways to:

  • Understand and adapt the agile values and principles;
  • Build self-organizing teams; let the people doing the work define how to do the work;
  • Regularly stop to reflect on how to improve their process, collaboration, and quality;
  • Create an environment where collaboration includes business, non-technical, and technical points of view;
  • Have the discipline to keep things simple and not build things that are not needed.

To support their evolution from Forming to Performing, agile teams need to define team practices like: ways of working, technical practices, and scaling strategies. Agile teams frequently use one of many existing frameworks to support those practices or choose to define their own practices to meet their unique needs.


Agile software development has matured since 2001, but is still a discipline where agile teams can continually learn and improve. The key is to understand that achieving agility is a constant journey of improvement and responding to change. Developing a deep understanding of your current frameworks is key, but remembering that achieving agility goes beyond mastering narrowly defined activities.

To achieve the real value of Agile, teams need to understand the unique qualities of each team, organization, product, and project to determine the best approach to a given product development assignment. Agile teams need to look broadly at the frameworks, methods, and tools available and apply those to current circumstances to stay intensely focused on the goal of achieving customer value frequently.