The word, “agile”, is thrown around a lot these days. But what does it mean and why is it used so often?
We all know the standard dictionary definition: “to be able to move quickly and easily”. But there is a new definition that is having a profound impact on our companies and how we think about education.
“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.”
What does that mean and why is it so important? The reality is that Agile is having an impact far beyond software development.
Let’s take a moment and step back into history. Agile didn’t start as simply as a “method”, but as a “movement”. This movement was launched back in 2001 by seventeen developers who came together and wrote a manifesto. This movement included a collection of new methodologies that were completely transforming how software development was done.
Traditionally, software was developed in a process called “waterfall”, where each step of the process was defined in a sequential fashion. To launch a new project, you would start by collecting all of the user requirements, document them, then develop, test and finally deliver a new application to users. Depending on the complexity of the application, this process might take several months or years from start to finish.
Seemed like a reasonable process, as it worked with clear linear steps, much like a production line in a factory. One step following after the next, until completion.
Problem was, it wasn’t working.
Over and over again, when the software was delivered, the users wouldn’t be happy with it. It might include all of the features in the original specifications, but once it was actually being used, critical additional features were often identified. Customers would then request changes to make it more suitable to their needs. The developers would grumble, because often those changes were difficult to implement given how the software had been designed. A struggle would frequently ensue, leaving neither side happy.
The fundamental problem that confronted this process is that often, until you use something, you really don’t know what you want.
There had to be another way.
Out of this frustration Agile was born.
The manifesto defined four basic principles of Agile. And from those four principles, new development methodologies were created. The most well know of these methodologies is called Scrum, which uses multi-disciplinary teams, called “scrums”, to work in short spurts of activity, called “sprints”, to deliver, in a short period of time – usually a couple of weeks – elements of the solution, called “stories”. These solutions are developed in partnership with users, and, after each sprint, there is a time for reflection and redirection, called a “retrospection”, before embarking on the next sprint.
This development process has proven to be far faster and more efficient than the traditional “waterfall” development methodology. It has now been widely adopted by all types of product managers. In fact, you cannot sell to the Department of Defense unless you are Agile certified.
But from this origination as a development methodology, the concept of Agile began to be modified and embraced as a management methodology by large organizations. The concept of “Lean Agile” was created to manage multiple teams that all need to be aligned to quickly bring to market complex solutions. Companies from Intel and IBM to Nike have now adopted this new management methodology.
At the core of the success of Agile lies the ability of a team, and ultimately an organization, to learn faster. By using short sprints of urgent focus by multi-disciplinary teams, success and failure happens fast. By frequently reviewing what worked and didn’t work, teams are able to quickly learn and adapt, evolving their solution in fast iterations. “Fail forward fast” has become the rallying cry of teams emboldened with creative courage.
If increasing the rate of learning is at the core of Agile, what might happen if we brought the principles of Agile into educational institutions to exponentially increase the rate of learning for students? We know that, with the right context, students can learn faster than we can teach. So what might happened if we utilized Agile principles to ignite purpose-focused learning, unleashing new potential?
This question is at the core of re-imagining the educational experience that we have embarked on, realizing that this question underpins an entire culture change, not only for our schools, but also for our communities.
Fast forward into the future.