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Definition: Agile Methodology

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Agile Methodology is actually a bit of a controversial termVarious authors consider Agile a method, as distinct from a methodology. Others, prefer methodology over method. For example, using the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, Alistair Cockburn makes the following distinction between methodology and method in Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game :

  • Methodology: A series of related methods or techniques
  • Method: Systematic procedure

Alistair views Agile as a methodology in the sense defined above. For example, he discusses Crystal as a family of methodologies. The reader is referred to Alistair’s book for a an excellent analysis of the various aspects of methodologies. As a matter of fact, Alistair tracks down the confusion between method and methodology to certain inconsistencies between various versions of the Oxford English Dictionary.

On the other hand, best I can tell from various conversations with him, Jim Highsmith seems to prefer the term Agile Method. This preference is reflected in Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products. It is possible that Jim’s preference is due to writing his book from a project management perspective.

Rather than getting in-depth to the method versus methodology controversy, I would simply cite two definitions I find useful in capturing the essence of Agile methodology, or method if you prefer.

An interesting metaphor for Agile has been used by Jim Highsmith in a 2009 Cutter Advisory:

Visualize a house structure with a roof, a foundation, and three pillars… The roof is business goals — the rationale for implementing agile methods and scaling to larger agile projects. The foundation is agile values or principles — principles that need careful interpretation as to how to apply them to larger teams. And finally, the three pillars: organization, product backlog, and process/practice.

The simplicity of the metaphor makes it quite effective in communicating what Agile is in a concise way without losing the richness of the various elements in Agile.

Using Scrum as an example, colleague David Spann gives the following down-to-earth summary of the key structural components of Agile in a 2008 Cutter Executive Report:

Scrum, as a management methodology, is elegant in its design, requiring only three roles (i.e., product owner, ScrumMaster, and self-organized team), three ceremonies (sprint/iteration planning, daily Scrum/debrief, and sprint review meetings), and three artifacts (product and sprint backlogs and the burndown chart) — just-enough practical advice so agile teams do not overcomplicate the development lifecycle with too much ceremony and documentation.

Needless to say, the structural elements will change from one Agile methodology to another. However, examining an Agile methodology through the {roles, ceremonies, artifacts} “lens” is an excellent way to summarize an Agile methodology. Furthermore, it enables easy comparison between the ‘usual suspects’ of Agile – Crystal Methods, Dynamic Systems Development, Extreme Programming, Feature Driven Development, and Kanban. The reader is referred to The Business Value of Agile Software Methods: Maximizing ROI with Just-in-Time Processes and Documentation for detailed comparisons between the various methods/methodologies.