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The Agile Maturity Pyramid: What’s the difference between Doing Agile and Being Agile?


There is an important difference between people who are truly being Agile, and those that are simply practicing Agile techniques. Focusing only on practices or frameworks, without taking the Agile mindset into account, compromises the Agile journey. This is because, without the right mindset, it can be incredibly difficult to deal with complex issues in empirical environments and uncertain situations.

Doing Agile vs. Being Agile

Those who are doing Agile are just following specific frameworks, practices and techniques. This often indicates that an organisation has failed to move beyond the simpler trappings of agility — such as performing iterations, holding daily stand-up meetings and writing user stories – and it is why the first value of the Agile Manifesto is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Those who are being Agile, however, concentrate on values, attitudes and behaviours. These organisations embed and follow guiding principles that exhibit the essence and spirit of agility, including:

  • Transparency
  • Visualisation
  • A shared understanding and vision
  • Being adaptive
  • Being evolutionary
  • Practising value-driven development

In other words, when organisations are doing Agile, they are asking, “What do I need to do Agile and how?”– implying they are ruled by framework, methodology, tools and techniques. Whereas when they are being Agile, they are asking, “Why do I need to be Agile and how?” This implies that they are more concerned with the kind of behavior, mindset and thinking necessary to succeed.

The Lean-Agile Maturity Pyramid

One of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto, Alistair Cockburn, introduced three stages of learning ( Shu, Ha and Ri) that can be mapped along the spectrum of doing and being Agile. The Shu level is the starting point, which is well-aligned with people who are doing Agile. Ha is the transition stage, and people learn how to be Agile in the Ri stage.

In my time working as an Agile coach and product manager in different business environments and industries, there have been always two questions on my mind:

  • How do we move from the Shu level and ultimately reach the Ri level?
  • How can we distinguish more Agile organisations and people from those who are less Agile?

These questions led me to develop my own Agile maturity pyramid – let’s call it Mazdak’s Lean Agile Maturity Pyramid (MLAMP). The pyramid has two dimensions, one vertical and one horizontal:

  • Lean Agile Wisdom: The vertical axis illustrates the Agile maturity level of organizations and individuals and how to move from “doing agile” to “being agile” (Shu-Ha-Ri)
  • Lean Agility Spectrum: The horizontal axis which can assess Agility level of organization and individuals and identify the gap on each aspect

While developing this concept, I have come to conclude that those truly being Agile will focus on the first 17 key aspects of the pyramid and less on the last three.

Lean-Agility Spectrum: Less Agile – More Agile

True Agilists think and behave differently. There are 20 aspects we can use to distinguish people and organisations that are more agile from those that are less agile.

Mindset of a true Agilist:

  1. Philosophy: Be pragmatic. Solve problems in sensible ways that suit the existing context rather than obeying fixed theories, ideas or rules.
  2. Need: Start with what is available, rather than waiting for the perfect situation, specific tools and environment. Seek the minimum information needed to start your journey or experiment.
  3. Engagement: Work collaboratively rather than individually to achieve the outcome. This applies both within a team and across teams, projects, and organisational silos.
  4. Value: People who are working in complex environment should share the following values: transparency, commitment, openness, courage, shared-responsibility and collective accountability.
  5. Structure: Work in a flat organisation rather than in silos or within a hierarchy.
  6. Leadership Style: The preferred leader type is the servant-leader, who has a participative, collaborative and supportive leadership style rather than a directive one.
  7. Decision modelling: Make discussion based on fact and figures, they are more data-driven, and following Evidence Based Decision Making process, rather than deciding based on their perceptions and internal or external political reasons.
  8. Communication: Communicate effectively through informal and face-to-face conversations rather than more formal and written means.
  9. Learning: Do not fear failure. Continuously learn by doing or by failing. Make hypotheses and validate them through experiments. Truly believe that you learn more from failure than from success.
  10. Improvement: By believing in continuous improvement rather than ad-hoc and linear improvements, you can better provide and receive both internal and external feedback in order to improve the way you work, and the value you deliver.
  11. Progress Measure: Measure success in terms of crafting working solutions and enhancing customer satisfaction rather than pursuing documentation, agreements and reports.
  12. Goal: The ultimate goal is to increase ROI by delighting the customer and improving satisfaction through delivering the highest possible value rather than optimising costs and improving processes.
  13. Centre: Be customer-centric, not process-centric.
  14. Focus: Be solution-focused rather than problem-focused. Understand that the key to success is all about providing pragmatic solutions rather than bringing problems.
  15. Environment: Based on Cynefin Complexity Model there are five different type of problems which each require specific strategies and behaviours — Obvious, Complicated, Complex, Chaos and Disorder. Most problems facing businesses today (regardless of industry) are either complex or complicated. True agilists are experts in dealing with complex problems in an empirical environment.
  16. Drive: Be change-driven and value-driven rather than plan-driven. In complex and complicated situations it is nearly impossible to plan upfront and, even if it is possible, following the plan is not responsive enough when everything is changing quickly. What truly distinguishes more agile people is how rapidly they can respond to change.
  17. Approach: Being adaptive is key. Plan iteratively, deliver value incrementally, and adjust the journey . The adaptive approach can reduce potential risk, increase customer satisfaction, and decrease cost of delivery.
  18. Framework/Methodology: Focus less on how to deliver customer value or which framework/methodology to use and instead accept that any particular framework (e.g. Scrum, SAFe, Kanban, Scrum of Scrum, XP, etc.) will need to evolve during the Agile journey to adapt to the situation.
  19. Practice/Technique: Being aware that some practices (e.g. prioritisation, iteration planning, stand-up, etc.) and techniques (e.g. Kano-Analysis, MosCow, Planning Poker etc.) may or may not work in some environments. Choose and customise existing practices and techniques and even combine or create new ones as they align with the higher levels of the pyramid rather than being forced to fit with existing business practices that are too hard to change.
  20. Tools: Tools are inconsequential and will depend on many factors like the location(s) of team members (e.g. co-located or distributed). However, the true agile tend to use low-tech but high-touch tools like sticky notes, whiteboards, pens and paper rather than using high-tech electronic devices or sophisticated software. True agilists know that working with the low-tech/high-touch tools has many benefits as they increase team collaboration, are much more flexible, less costly, easier to use, faster and more accessible.

The core values and guiding principles of Agile give rise to good processes – not the other way around. That’s why doing Agile can be achieved over night, but being Agile is a longer journey. It requires a change in mindset and a paradigm shift. To truly be Agile, one must unlearn what was taught and develop the ability to look at a subject from a new perspective.

Simply following a particular framework without understanding the philosophy will limit a team, organisation, or individual. Organisations that adopt Agile practices without embracing the values and principles will struggle. The greatest success stories derive from those organisations that have embraced the philosophy and have consequently found Agile to be very powerful.