Agile vs. agile | Jesse Fewell

Agile vs. agile

By March 8, 2017Blog

What’s the difference between Agile and agile?” Big A Agile and lower case A agile, small A agile. What’s the difference between the two, because there’s been a little bit of conversation lately about that there’s … they’re not the same thing, completely different things. One is, you can’t do this, you can’t be … and it’s just, for regular people, it’s really confusing, and the reason it’s confusing is, when we talk about big A Agile, we’re talking about a ton of different techniques out there.

There are Many “AGILE” Methods


This subway map comes to us from a guy named Chris Webb over at Deloitte, and this reflects just how big this big-A Agile industry has become. What started off as a movement in the software world has turned into a management revolution, and now everybody wants some. As a result, you’ve got all these different little smorgasbord of choices to deal with. It gets overwhelming and confusing. It relates to stuff that is tangible, like, “I’m going to do scrum, and I’m going to use story points and I’m going to allocate a scrum master,” or, “I’m going to use a given technique that I learned about in some training class or that I read about in a book.” Doing something known and practical and proven to get results, so that’s important. Right? These are good things to do. They’re known, and established and proven.

But is That What “agile” is About?

But what’s happening lately is a new conversation which I’m referring to as the “post-agile” or “informal agile” conversation. This was popularized a little bit by Alistair Cockburn (one of the originators of the whole agile movement) and his Heart of Agile model.

Alistair is saying, “Instead of trying to figure out which technique to use, just go pursue a core attribute of success in an organization: How can we improve our collaboration? How can we improve delivery? Just having honest, candid, hard-nosed conversations about that.

This was also the keynote at the big Agile conference last year where Josh Kerievsky talked about his Modern Agile.



Here, Josh is basically saying that same thing: We’ve got to focus on delivery, we’ve got to focus on safety, and we’ve got to focus on people. Whatever you do to achieve those goals, that’s cool, man.

So, small-a “agile” is really about the results regardless of the technique. I’ve been at Silicon Valley a couple times lately where I mention, “I’m a Scrum expert. I am an Agile project management person,” and I get a whole lot of eye-rolls from people saying “Like, Really? That’s like, like, totally 1990s.”

….And they’re right

…because this stuff has been around for a long time, those techniques that we know, that are proven, that are established best practices.

A Classic Example of “agile”

There’s real honest conversation going on now. Why not just do what works to achieve higher delivery, better collaboration, high-performing empowered teams, and a commitment to growth and learning and consistency?

The best practical example that I’ve seen in the real world, is Basecamp, formerly known as 37signals. They wrote a book called Getting Real, years ago.

The book  is basically just a riff where they took their best blog posts and put them together about their own methodology for how they do work. And it’s decidedly absent of a lot of buzz words. Go take a look. The book is free, and it’s an interesting little perspective about how you can be small-A agile without doing any of the big-A Agile stuff that we’ve seen out there in the industry.

Evolve from “AGILE” to “agile”

So in my mind the debate between the two perspectives is misguided. Many talk about big-A Agile with, “Kanban. No, scrum. No, XP was the first one.” Any many have to do big-A Agile, because it’s what’s known and established and proven. And you can do that on your journey to becoming small-A agile, which is about delivering results, about having the outputs that we care about with respect to delivery and collaboration  and improvement….and THAT is the whole point of what we’re trying to accomplish.


  • David Koontz says:

    Interesting opinion on the difference in small vs large A of agile. I assumed the exact opposite. Let me tell you my reasons…

    The little “a” agile has been around a long long time. It’s well defined in the dictionary, it’s what webster would tell you if you could ask him.
    1. able to move quickly and easily.
    “Ruth was as agile as a monkey”
    synonyms: nimble, lithe, supple, limber, acrobatic, fleet-footed, light-footed, light on one’s feet; More
    2. relating to or denoting a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.

    So that’s the little ‘a’ agile term – well defined, what’s the big ‘A’ term mean… well that was defined by 17 men in Snowbird ski resort in 2001, and documented in the Agile Manifesto. That’s what the big A term means, nothing less, and perhaps if one truly believes much, much more.

    So that diagram of 10,000 items on Webb’s SAFe diagram… well that might have been a bit of a farce, a graphical pulling of ones leg… or it might be the process flow of companies adopting the SAFe methodology – I’m no expert. But that thing that Alister and Josh are wanting… that is better defined by the small a term, stated in Websters dictionary. In my opinion.

    • jessefewell says:

      Great comment, David. Rumor has it that Martin Fowler initially hesitated to label the movement as “agile”, because “then will spread everywhere and lose its meaning”. Turns out he was right. I’m reminded of the “Curse of knowledge” phenomenon, where knowing a lot of “Agile” techniques, gets in the way of communicating “agile” concepts.

  • Sherild Sanfeliz says:

    Always interesting to watch your videos. This gives me ideas on how to continue to work with my teams.

Leave a Reply