The idea of “Radical agility” was first conceptualized by three Agile experts, Jean-Pascal Boignard, Claude Aubry, and Anthony Cassaigne. This concept aims at refocusing agility on its original values while extending it to current preoccupations in order to better prepare for the future. As defined by its creators, radical agility encompasses three dimensions:
- the social,
- the attention of the living,
- and the refusal of the “faux-agile”
[The term “faux-agile” comes from a conference hosted by Martin Fowler, one of the authors of the agile manifesto. It includes everything that disregards agile values and principles.]
The will to go back to the roots of agility is not new, nor unique. Several definitions of “the essence of agility” exist: Modern Agile, Heart of Agile, … Indeed, over the years, among the teams and the companies that have encompassed the agile principles, many of them have gone astray. For instance:
- by focusing too much on the rites and rhythms as defined in the different agile methodologies (sprint planning, daily stand-up meeting, retrospective, …)
- by executing plans and following processes in a rigid way
- by setting fixed goals and contracts instead of adapting to change
But radical agility goes a step further. In addition to being faithful to the original expression of the 2001 agile manifesto, the concept of radical agility strives to make it more explicit, more applicable regarding today’s challenges, which are not quite the same as they were 20 years ago.
What is Radical Agility?
When defining the concept of radical agility, Jean-Pascal, Claude and Anthony went back to the original agile manifesto and extended its 4 propositions in order to better consider the current situation. Their proposal goes as follow:
Source: L’art de devenir une équipe agile (The art of becoming an agile team), by Claude Aubry, illustrated by Etienne Appert.
The main idea behind the radical agility manifesto is to develop products and services that bring value to the client and the users, a value that is not only economical but also social and ecological.
Let’s dive into the 4 relative values of the agile manifesto and how they evolve in the radical agility manifesto:
1. Individuals and interactions (over processes and tools)
Everyone agrees on the fundamental importance of the human aspect highlighted by the manifesto. However, we can see that processes still play a very important role in organizations and that tools are often imposed on people and constrain their interactions rather than encouraging them.
This part of the manifesto tackles the way to work as a team: how? With whom? The team is itself a complex system. In order to better consider individuals and their interactions, reflections have multiplied on the notion of leadership in an agile team, many solutions have emerged to facilitate decision-making in a group, and the notion of collective intelligence has developed strongly. One concept has long been discussed, which would be more evocative of the desired way of working as a team: self-organization.
[As defined by the scrum dictionary, a self-organized team is one that chooses how best to accomplish its work, rather than being directed (micro-managed) by others outside the team.]
Of course, we still value people and interactions more than processes and tools. But beyond people and interactions, radical agility promotes self-organization.
2. Working software (over comprehensive documentation)
The second sentence of the agile manifesto states that “seeing the software working [should be preferred to] having comprehensive documentation”. According to Claude, Jean-Pascal, and Anthony, this second point of the agile manifesto is probably the least understood. It deals with the way the team works, its approach, its life cycle.
It values light and empirical processes based on an iterative approach more than a heavy and predictive process based on successive phases (like in the waterfall or the V-cycle models). And at the end of each iterative cycle, the software should work on itself, allowing for feedback from users and wider stakeholders: the feedback loops. This also implies that there will be some specification, some design, some coding, and some testing in each cycle.
Thus stakeholders can assess the value that the product brings to them and propose an evolution for the next cycle so that this value keeps growing. By frequently facing the people concerned by what the team does, the social value of the product or service, as defined by David Graeber in his book Bullshit Jobs, is ensured:
“Taking care of each other so that everyone is freer, enjoys life, enjoys freedom, and has a pleasant leisure time”.
It is this radical approach that we defend seeing the software work more than having its full documentation, but ensuring the social value of the product or service at each feedback loop even more than seeing the software work.
3. Customer collaboration (over contract negotiation)
The third point of the agile manifesto states that “the collaboration with the client [should count] more than the negotiation of the contract”. Indeed, a contract implies a precise description of the expected product, including specifications, and the project owner ordering the realization to the project manager.
While this can be reasonable for anyone working in an industry or in a regulated field, this type of organization does not work in the field of knowledge work. Indeed:
- it is impossible to specify in advance what the final product will be,
- defining the product specifications in advance is even counterproductive because it pushes to develop features that will not be used,
- the separation into two entities – one that writes the contract, the other that executes it – maintains a harmful distrust.
With this in mind, a new position emerged and gained importance with the release of Scrum: the role of Product Owner, representing customers and users inside the team of developers. He is the one responsible for steering the product towards what brings the most value iteration after iteration. Here comes the question of the value.
In our western societies, we usually consider primarily business value, oriented towards end-users. At first, it seems quite logical: to maximize the benefits for those who use it. However, considering the product business value only can entail biases and pernicious effects:
- putting aside its social and ecological usefulness,
- making team members involved in the project work against their personal ethics,
- and even contributing to the destruction of biodiversity and the acceleration of climate change.
Radical agility does not stop at the collaboration with the customer to simply increase business value. Beyond the collaboration with the client, we take into account the impact on living beings.
4. Responding to change (over following a plan)
The last of the 4 relative values of the agile manifesto urges teams to “adapt to change more than follow the plan”.
When the Agile Manifesto was released in 2001, the grail of project management was to finish on time according to the deadlines defined in the original plan. The manifesto does not say that following a plan is wrong. In fact, every sprint following the Scrum methodology has a plan. The problem is trying to follow the plan at all costs. Especially when the original plan was made when the team had little knowledge of the situation and has never been updated to adapt to changes that impact it.
So, rather than following the original plan, it is better to adapt to change. The second principle of the agile manifesto enlightens us on the intention of its creators: “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”
Agility makes it possible to build the right product by regularly (at each cycle) involving its users. However, it is the team that remains free to accept (or refuse) a proposition from users. What is toxic is when changes are imposed on the team, using power or urgency as an excuse. Indeed, some companies have adopted this mantra to the point that it becomes an injunction (“you have to adapt ») and use it as a pretext to make agile teams undergo all possible changes.
This behavior can be quite harmful to the team, especially when these changes undermine the team’s self-organization. If everything changes all the time, teams cannot be safe.
“This is why we propose this evolution of the manifesto: adapting to change more than following the plan, but beyond adapting to (undergone) change, we want to become the desired change”, the three experts explain. “And we hope that the desired change will be more and more concerned with social value and the impact on living beings.”
The origins of the concept of Radical Agility
The idea of radical agility came up to Jean-Pascal, Claude Aubry, and Anthony during the first confinement period in France, in spring 2020.
“We used to organize in-person book clubs on all topics closely or remotely related to Agile in Toulouse, south of France. With the pandemic, we switched to online, more frequent, and lighter events, focusing on articles rather than books that take longer to read. One of the klubs (as we call them) that happened in March 2020 was focusing on an article written by the sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, ‘Imagining barrier gestures against the return to pre-crisis production’ (originally written in French but here is the English version). This article was urging each and every one of us to reflect on where we want to go, and how to get out of productivism. It inspired us to create a tool: the Confinement Retro, and it all started from there.”
[The Confinement Retro available in French here: https://agileradical.org/outils/retroconf/]
This klub helped Claude, Jean-Pascal, and Anthony realize they were sharing a common will to act on the climate and social emergency. As they conceived it, the confinement retro is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning. It goes further than a classic retrospective, focusing on the way of doing things, and challenges what the team produces.
Soon after, Claude, Jean-Pascal, and Anthony were asked to participate in a Keynote organized by the collective “Online agile”. In front of over 300 participants, they laid the first bricks of radical agility, encompassing the social dimension, considering the impacts on living beings, and solving the struggle of false agile.
“The extension of the notion of value is the key we were missing to reconcile the battles we want to lead and to align our personal and professional values. Getting together around these values was easy since we were sharing for almost 10 years a common reading base.”
“In retrospect, defining the concept of radical agility was like finding a seed that germinated during the confinement, and that deserved attention. It is above all our discussions and sharing knowledge that made the initial idea grow, and that also favored our individual growth.”
How to start with Radical Agility?
The entire initiative is based on Anthony, Claude, and Jean-Pascal’s rooted hope towards the new generation to question the meaning of their work, to lift the contradictions on agile, and have a positive social and environmental impact.
“We are convinced that a lot of people in the digital and development environment are interested in aligning their work with their ideas, values, and will to act against global warming, for the conservation of biodiversity, and to reduce our impact on the planet. Those will find with what we propose ways to act by themselves in their organization, to make concrete change.”
The three experts recommend starting small. “If you share the values of radical agility, you can start by confronting your ideas with your team or with peers. On our website agileradical.org (in French), we try to make the concept of radical agility more accessible and applicable, in order to impact agile teams from the inside. You can find in there the confinement retro and kickoff canvas to set up a team and ask yourselves the right questions before jumping into agile. We picture serious games helping developers ask themselves the right questions. There’s still a lot to be invented.”
The website itself is a firefly illuminating these values, hoping that it will turn into a sun.
Header picture by Julius Holstein from Pexels