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Agile 101: A quick guide for businesses

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A ski slope sounds like the unlikeliest of places for the birth of a software revolution. But that was exactly how the Agile Manifesto, a reaction against the waterfall model dominating software development processes at that point, came into being in 2001. Now, more than two decades later, Agile is widely practised by many organisations, with 94% having at least some Agile experience and 65% having significant experience with Agile.

To understand why Agile excels over the waterfall model, we will first look at the latter and why it was problematic. Next, we will look at Agile, how it works, some cons associated with it, and how businesses can work around those cons.

The waterfall model versus Agile methodology

As its name suggests, the waterfall model breaks down project activities into linear sequential phases, with activities flowing from upstream to downstream after each prior phase is completed.

Why was the waterfall model problematic? Imagine the scenario in the context of cooking. If you are making a three-course meal and can only make your main dish only after your appetizer is completed. But you have run out of a key ingredient for your appetizer and so your whole cooking process is held up. And imagine also that you can only sample your three dishes once everything is ready, instead of test-tasting whenever you add salt. You might end up with a dish that is overly salty and your meal will fall through. In other words, developer teams could be stuck in costly delays if a previous phase was not completed. They also had little avenues to receive feedback and catch bugs in a timely fashion. To combat these problems, Agile was born.

What is Agile?

The Agile Manifesto essentially consists of four main values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

These values are expanded upon in the Twelve Principles of Agile Software. Today, the Agile methodology refers to an iterative approach in software development and project management. Instead of coming up with a large final product after months of working, teams work in short, incremental bursts to deliver work. Unlike the waterfall model, requirements and plans are more flexible, allowing team members the agility to make changes as needed in response to customer feedback.

Scrum or Kanban?

Two popular Agile frameworks are scrum (the most popular) and kanban. However, it is important to note that the principle underlying the two are the same (the Agile manifesto i.e iterative work instead of a big launch) and that the main differences lie in the frameworks’ practices.

Agile methodology chart

Source: 15th State of Agile Report by

Scrum teams work in set intervals of time known as sprints to deliver work. Their main purpose is to develop feedback loops in which they can quickly respond to and integrate customer feedback into their work. Team members adopt specific roles and hold regular meetings, known as ceremonies (sprint planning, retrospective, stand-ups, retrospectives) to keep everyone in the loop and on task. The three main roles in Scrum are:

  1. Product owner. The person who oversees the product backlog, champions the voice of the customer, and prioritises the work to be done.
  2. Scrum master. In contrast to the product owner who focuses on the “why” of a product, the scrum master focuses on the “how” of a product and facilitates ceremonies to help scrum teams stay on track. This facilitation can involve running sprint planning meetings, taking notes during retrospectives, as well as identifying and eliminating blockers for the team so they can focus on their work.
  3. The development team. This is the rest of the team, regardless of their role. The team members choose the work that is to be done for that sprint. They are responsible for delivering the work as well as voicing any changes that need to be made.

Kanban teams make use of visualisations to reduce their work in progress and maximise project efficiency. Unlike scrum teams, there is less emphasis on working in set intervals, but more on keeping work flowing continuously. There are also no required roles for the kanban framework.

That being said, teams can adopt a combination of kanban and scrum methods as best suits their needs.


Source: Pixabay

What are the cons of Agile?

You might have realised by this point that there is a glaring gap in the Agile Manifesto – it was originally written only for software developers, who have very different deliverables from UX researchers and designers! As such, there are often tensions and challenges about using Agile project management methods for roles outside of software development. Some common challenges include:

  • Unsuitability of deliverable timeline for sprint timeline. Even at its fastest, writing a testing plan, recruitment, testing, and synthesising findings take at least 4 weeks on average (1 week each). With short sprint cycles lasting under 4 weeks, this means that research backlog items remain open across multiple sprints.
  • Uncertainty over what to do with research findings. Some stakeholders and teams might be unsure what to do from the insights that come out of user research as they are used to receiving code or design as a deliverable.

Since Agile chiefly aims to address complex problems with unknown solutions, certain business operations with known solutions, such as purchasing and plant maintenance, may also be less suitable for an Agile environment as opposed to operations such as product development.

How can businesses address the cons of Agile?

While acknowledging that Agile is not applicable in all aspects of a business, it is still valuable to incorporate it wherever possible. Going back to the two cons mentioned above, business owners can resolve those cons in the following manner:

1. Issue: Unsuitability of deliverable timeline for sprint timeline

Solution: Enable UX researchers and designers to represent individual tasks across multiple sprints.

2. Issue: Uncertainty over what to do with research findings

Solution: Encourage users and designers to share the progress of their research process at stand-ups so other team members are kept in the loop.


The Agile methodology increases work efficiency and enhances product value by enabling teams to pivot and respond to changes as needed, avoiding costly mistakes further down the product development cycle. Although no framework is perfect, there are ways to address the cons of Agile to create a more conducive and efficient environment for members of the community.

Preparing to get certified as a Scrum Master? We offer a 2-day interactive, activity-based course, the Professional Scrum Master™ (PSM) course, which also includes a free attempt at the globally recognized Professional Scrum Master I (PSM I) certification exam. Check out more details about the PSM course here.

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