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An Introduction to Modern Agile

Key takeaways

  • Learn what is “modern” about Modern Agile
  • Understand Modern Agile’s Four Guiding Principles
  • Learn ways to implement Modern Agile
  • Understand how Modern Agile compares with the Manifesto for Agile Software Development
  • Consider the future of Agile

Agile is modernizing. Thanks to Lean and Agile pioneers and practitioners, we now have simpler, safer, speedier ways to achieve awesome results. We call these new approaches “Modern Agile” because they’ve evolved far beyond early Agile methods.

Modern Agile is ultra-light, the opposite of mainstream Agile, which is drowning in a bloated tangle of enterprise tools, scaling frameworks and questionable certificates that yield more bureaucracy than results.

Modern Agile has no roles, responsibilities or anointed practices. Instead, it is defined by four guiding principles:

These four principles clarify our purpose and guide us towards better risk management, greater capital efficiency, increased empathy and reduced busywork.

If you study three-star Michelin chefs like Massimo Bottura, multi-million dollar entrepreneurs like Gary Vaynerchuk and world-class organizations like Alcoa, Amazon, Google and Etsy, you’ll find these principles at work.

Modern Agile principles are stated as imperatives because they are vital for long term success. Let’s explore them one at a time:

Make People Awesome

While Modern Agile doesn’t tell you what to create, it does state that your purpose is to Make People Awesome. This idea is inspired by Kathy Sierra’s blogs, talks and book, Badass: Making Users Awesome.

Kathy says that we aren’t here to make a great product or a great company, but rather to make our customers awesome at whatever they do with our products or services. That means figuring out what’s holding them back and making essential changes to help them achieve awesome results.

This advice can take you far. Amazon has made “Customer Obsession” a guiding principle since 1997 and it shows. If you make customers awesome, they tend to be natural promoters of your products or services. Your work or business will thrive if you follow Kathy’s advice.

But what if you are hell-bent on making customers awesome yet your staff have miserable working conditions or working relationships? That is not a recipe for long term success. To do their best work and make customers awesome, your staff must become awesome too. Modern Agile suggests that we endeavor to make everyone in our ecosystem awesome - including those who use, make, buy, sell or fund our products and services.

That’s a tall order. In fact, Make People Awesome may require striving for disruptive innovations or Big Hairy Audacious Goals (from the book, Built to Last). Assemble a team and define a future that you may have no idea how to achieve. Nicholas Negroponte once said, “Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.” Making incremental improvements is good (especially if you can deliver them continuously), yet big innovations often require a different way of thinking.

In Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg describes the creation of Japan’s bullet trains, which travelled 120 MPH in 1964. When Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric) heard the story of these trains in the early 1990s, he asked every division within GE to adopt “bullet train thinking” by setting ambitious goals that they had no idea how to achieve.

Make Safety a Prerequisite

Making people awesome isn’t possible if people are not safe. Safety is a basic human need and a key to unlocking high performance. Modern Agile elevates it to a prerequisite, a foundational ingredient for success.

Fear is rampant on too many teams. People are afraid to make changes, afraid to voice their opinions and afraid of making mistakes. The trouble is, fear kills performance. If you have a culture of fear, none of your fancy processes or practices will help you.

Seth Godin famously said, “People aren’t afraid of failure, they’re afraid of blame.” Blaming increases negativity and helps no one. This is why Etsy has a “blameless culture.” They understand that, rather than being the fault of a single individual or group, mistakes are usually the result of unseen problems in the environment that may have been around for some time but happened to be triggered one day by someone. Their concern is to learn blamelessly from failures and quickly improve.

The same is true at Google. Once, an engineer at Google confessed, “I screwed up a line of code and it cost us a million dollars in revenue.” The code in question was part of Google’s highly profitable AdWords software. In many organizations, a mistake like that could lead to further losses, like the loss of one’s job, a loss of confidence or respect. Not at Google.

As Laszlo Bock describes in his book Work Rules, the engineer who made the mistake worked for Jeff Huber, SVP of Ads and Apps. Jeff creates a culture that allows people to safely admit mistakes and learn from them. He convenes a “What did we learn?” session in which the team discusses notable errors, fixes for those errors and discusses what to learn from the errors.

After holding such a session about the engineer’s million-dollar mistake, Jeff asked the team, “Did we get more than a million dollars in learning out of this?” When the team responded that they had, the meeting concluded and everyone went back to work with more crucial knowledge than before. In fact, that meeting saved more than a million because the risk-taking and new discoveries that safe-to-fail cultures enable are priceless.

My obsession with safety began in 2012, when Charles Duhigg published his fantastic book The Power of Habit. Duhigg tells the story of Paul O’Neill and the aluminum giant, Alcoa. Mr. O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa in 1986, at a time when the 100-year-old company was in trouble. Workers were unhappy, aluminum quality was poor, unions fought fiercely with Alcoa management and innovation stagnated. Mr. O’Neill had an unusual idea for fixing all of these problems: focus on worker safety.

Mr. O’Neill didn’t make safety a priority since priorities change frequently. Instead he empowered workers to make safety a prerequisite. The changes were immediate and staggering. As workers made changes, the work became safer and more efficient. Fixing problems led workers to suggest new, innovative ideas and quality improved. By making worker safety a prerequisite, Paul O’Neill had unlocked a door to excellence.

For the 13 years during which Mr. O’Neill was CEO and long after he left in 2000, Alcoa’s stock performed spectacularly, workplace injuries and lost work days plummeted and Alcoa workers and customers were much happier than before.

Make Safety a Prerequisite means establishing safety before engaging in potentially hazardous work. If safety isn’t improved after each accident or near-miss, excellence will be elusive. Therefore, after any failure or near miss, take steps to prevent the problem from ever happening again.

Making safety a prerequisite requires making our collaborations, products and services safe. We endeavor to protect people’s time, money, health, information, reputation and relationships. Instead of spouting vacuous corporate platitudes, like "We take your safety seriously,” we treat safety as our doorway to excellence, an essential key to Making People Awesome.

Experiment & Learn Rapidly

Human-powered flight was once an unsolved problem. In 1959, a wealthy businessman offered a large cash reward to anyone who could pilot a human-powered aircraft around a one-mile, figure-eight course. For 18 years, no one did. Then Paul MacCready entered the challenge. He considered what had been tried and declared, “The problem is we don’t know what the problem is.”

MacCready then engineered a process by which he could iterate safely and rapidly on the problem of human-powered flight. He and his team used aluminum tubing, mylar and wire to quickly produce experimental airplanes. The airplanes flew so slowly and so close to the ground that crashing was safe and fixing the airplanes was easy. Whereas his competitors took weeks or months between test flights, MacCready and team attempted flights, failed, learned, adapted and experimented again all in a matter of hours. Within a year of first attempting human powered flight, he and his team succeeded with the Gossamer Condor.

Paul MacCready is widely considered to be one of the greatest engineers of the 20th century. Failing fast and safely was integral to his success. Experiment & Learn Rapidly is a guiding principle of Modern Agile because it protects us from wasting time and helps us discover success faster.

We make our experiments “safe to fail” so we are not afraid to conduct more of them. A journalist once asked Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, about the Amazon FirePhone, a total flop. Without missing a beat, Mr. Bezos replied, “We are working on much bigger failures right now.” Mr. Bezos runs Amazon like a venture capital fund, which only needs to succeed big on a few bets in its portfolio to easily pay for all of its failures. Mr. Bezos is proud of Amazon being a safe place to fail.

When we get stuck or aren’t learning enough, we take it as a sign that we need to run more experiments. Speed is key with this principle. We don’t wait long periods of time before learning that something isn’t working. We fail fast and quickly move on to new experiments. Experimenting & learning rapidly helps us achieve continuous improvement.

Deliver Value Continuously

How long does it take a brand new engineer at AirBnB to safely ship code to production? In many shops, the answer would be weeks or months. The general notion is that newbies aren’t safe to ship to production and need lots of training and mentoring before they make their first production deployment.

But at AirBnB, new hires ship after just 2 days on the job. How’s that possible?

AirBnB values continuous deployment so much that they build it directly into their onboarding program. A mentor is paired with a new hire and the mentor finds a defect to fix or small feature to implement. On the new hire’s first day of work, the mentor helps them configure their working machine (this is automated, so it doesn’t take lots of time). Next the mentor helps the new hire understand their task and then gets out of their way.

This experience gives every new hire a chance to understand AirBnB’s deployment pipeline and the steps necessary to get an idea from their fingertips into production. If they have any issues, their mentor is there to help.

This is possible because AirBnB genuinely cares about delivering value continuously. They invest in making their deployment pipeline safe so developers have an easy time getting value into customers hands.

If you don’t deliver regularly, you delay learning about what delights customers. Delivering value does not necessarily mean releasing a product or feature to the general public. Sometimes it can be as simple as delivering a half-baked idea to someone and quickly receiving feedback.

You want to work in such a way that value is constantly flowing out of you. If you are tasked with saving your company money by not letting unused instances of Amazon Web Services keep running, then find the fastest possible way to begin saving money now, not with a two-month plan.

Anything valuable that hasn’t been delivered isn’t helping anyone. In Modern Agile, we ask ourselves, “How might we deliver the right outcomes faster?” Doing this requires discovering smaller increments that may be deployed safely now rather than later. Delivering value continuously helps make customers happy and safe (for example, by quickly releasing a bug fix for them).

Delivering value continuously enables us to experiment and learn rapidly. In software development, a safe, continuous deployment pipeline lowers stress by making releasing an easy, almost boring, automated event. Such safety comes when you can quickly and easily roll back or roll forward deployments or releases.

“Doing” Modern Agile

So how do you “do” Modern Agile? I get that question a lot. What are the steps or prescriptions? Don’t we need more than just four principles?

Let’s say you decide you want to write a book. If you are driven by Modern Agile principles, you’ll want to quickly discover if the book will make people awesome. It would not be a safe investment of your time if no one has interest in your book. So, to learn whether there is genuine excitement about your topic, you’ll need to experiment and learn rapidly. To do that, you’ll need to deliver some value to some people and learn rapidly from their response. Perhaps you write a few pages, a short chapter or a small article, receiving feedback from an inner circle and then from a wider audience. As you write and learn, you’ll want to make sure your work is safe by using tools that protect your work by backing it up. If you are interviewing someone important for the book, you may want multiple recorders running, so if one breaks or runs out of space, you’ll have built-in fault tolerance to ensure you get a good recording.

Do you see how the principles drive what you do?

Another great way to learn how to apply Modern Agile is to learn from the stories of others who have successfully applied one or more of its principles. I learned about Continuous Deployment in 2007 when Timothy Fitz told the story of the his company (IMVU) “Doing the Impossible 50 Times a Day.”

Learning from great stories is a wonderful alternative to implementing steps in a framework or following a detailed prescription. Great stories are far more memorable than guidelines or rules.’s Learn More section references videos, books and articles containing stories of Modern Agile’s four principles.

Beyond stories, there are questions you can ask to be guided by the four principles. For example, “What are our biggest threats to safety internally and externally?” “Are people afraid at work?” “Do we have a clear vision of how to make people awesome?” “What experiments can we try today?” “Are our experiments safe-to-fail?”

Answering questions like these can point you in the right direction. But you’ll likely need more to master Modern Agile’s four principles.

Modern Agile radar charts can help. If you want, for example, to measure how you’re doing on Make Safety a Prerequisite, begin by brainstorming elements of that principle. One team I recently worked with came up with elements like psychological safety, physical safety, software safety, environmental safety, financial safety and how safe they are to fail. The team’s radar chart revealed how they scored on a scale of 0-5 for each element:

Radar charting is a great way to see your progress with a given principle.

Beyond that, there are new communities of people interested in and practicing Modern Agile principles. These communities offer a place to hear Modern Agile stories and tell your own. Visit’s Slack community or Facebook community to learn more.

Modern Agile & The Manifesto for Agile Software Development

Modern Agile’s four principles apply equally well to many endeavors, like manufacturing, HR, sales, marketing, producing a show or running a restaurant. Whereas, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is squarely focused only on software development.

Given the enormous popularity of Agile ideas, it’s time we updated our language to be inclusive of other areas of human activity.

In his comment on my first blog about Modern Agile, Karl Scotland wondered what it would be like if the Manifesto’s value statements (“We value x or y”) were more strategic, like Modern Agile’s four principles. This led him to make the following comparison:

Manifesto for Agile SW Development - We value...

Modern Agile Principles

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Make People Awesome

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Make Safety a Prerequisite

Responding to change over following a plan

Experiment & Learn Rapidly

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Deliver Value Continuously

The more I thought about this comparison, the more I realized that Karl had a great point: Modern Agile’s four principles provided clearer strategies for the general public (beyond software practitioners). From those strategies, people could derive more effective actions to take for their work. This led me to replace the practices I had originally written about in my first blog post with stories of the people or companies that have implemented those practices to achieve awesome results.

The Future of Agile

While Agile is modernizing, mainstream Agile adopters in the software industry are still being fed a sluggish process, strangled by overly bureaucratic tools, frameworks and certifications.

Young people now think Agile is for old people. Product people think Agile is all about story points and velocity, not end-user needs. Programmers who once liked Agile have abandoned it for Software Craftsmanship. Designers prefer Design Thinking. Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs prefer Lean Startup.

Meanwhile, the Agile Industrial Complex (including tool vendors, sales and marketing people, consultants, certification groups, certified trainers, etc.) is challenged by changes to Agile, since those changes require updating learning objectives, training materials, exams, tools, web sites and more. While we can understand their focus on monetization, we don’t have to let it stand in the way of modernization.

It’s time to send our distinguished, historically important but now antiquated processes and practices into an honorable retirement. It’s time to return Agile to a lightweight, joyful way of helping people achieve awesome results. It’s time for Modern Agile.

About the Author

Joshua Kerievsky is the founder and CEO of Industrial Logic, a pioneering consultancy that modernizes product development for organizations around the globe. In the mid-1990s, Joshua was among a small community of “lightweight methods” practitioners experimenting with better ways of developing software. Since then, he’s helped thousands of people across hundreds of organizations improve how they develop great products. Today, he leads an effort to modernize Agile by removing outdated practices and leveraging the best of what the software community and other industries have learned about achieving awesome results. Modern agile practitioners work to Make People Awesome, Make Safety A Prerequisite, Experiment & Learn Rapidly and Deliver Value Continuously. Joshua is an international speaker and author of the best-selling, Jolt Cola-award-winning book, Refactoring to Patterns, numerous Agile eLearning courses, and popular articles like Anzeneering, Sufficient Design and Stop Using Story Points. He’s active on Twitter, Snapchat and the emerging community.

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