The Goal

I have pretty strong feelings about Agile. That is to say, I can't stand it. When someone mentions Agile to me all I think about are overpriced books, puffed up consultants and "coaches" and a whole slew of project management software tools that give Pro[du|je]ct Managers way too much noise vs. signal about how a project is really going. And all of it gets in the way of what I really love to do: sling great code.

But man, oh man, do I dig being agile.

There's already a pretty awesome article about the difference between "Agile" and "agile". It says just about everything I could write on the subject. Rather than rehash ideologies, I'm going to introduce a concept that has helped me towards gaining an agile mindset: the goal.

I've had the goal in my head for a while now. I never bothered writing it down anywhere until a presentation that I threw together in about 30 minutes to help my new team with their agile adoption. That presentation is the first time I've seen the goal presented and worded in that form (I don't take credit for the goal; it is the product of a lot of reading, attending other people's presentations, some experiences good and bad, and a healthy dose of my own biased worldview.) Here is the goal:

Deliver working, usable, high-quality software as quickly as possible.

The goal answers a simple question: why are we adopting agile? This isn't about the project or product. The business has already defined the rationale for that. The goal is about the rationale for wanting to be agile while accomplishing the project.

Nothing in the goal (or the Agile Manifesto, for that matter), speaks to a specific process or method. And that's where the power of the goal comes from. It speaks to what the team is trying to accomplish, while making the how a secondary concern. Focusing on the goal allows a team to easily see where their agility is being compromised:
  • Is our software working? Is it ready to be put in the hands of our users? Are we making continual improvements to it?
  • Is it usable? Does it meet our users' needs and goals? Does it provide value to the stakeholders?
  • Does it have high-quality? Is the code clean, as bug-free as we can make it, and easy to fix when the bugs we missed inevitably appear?
  • Are we delivering fast enough? Are we meeting the current needs of the business? Are we able to act on ideas and opportunities before our competition does?
If the answer to any of those questions becomes "no" at any time, then the process is broken. Fix it. You don't have to follow Scrum or any other Agile methodology to the letter. Process is highly context dependent. Only you and your team know what will get you to the goal.

If everyone can agree on the goal, the rest is downhill. The team will work out it's own way of getting there. I suggest Scrum as a starting point because, as a method, it's easy to understand. But I believe that a team that is really focused on the goal will probably leave the guardrails of Scrum and start building their own process fairly quickly.

There's a concept that I first heard from Alistair Cockburn but originally came from Japanese martial arts: Shuhari 守破離. The basic premise is that there are 3 stages to attaining mastery of a skill:
  1. Shu — You imitate the form exactly. You do not deviate from the specified process, and you follow it to the letter.
  2. Ha — You begin to innovate for yourself. You tweak the process to take advantage of your own special circumstances and strengths.
  3. Ri — You no longer think in terms of forms or processes. There is a constant, smooth and uninterrupted flow of thought into action.
Everyone starts at Shu. Scrum is Shu, as is any other Agile method. Moving towards the goal helps a team move out of Shu and towards Ha. This is where agile beats out Agile. When you stop thinking about Agile or agile, and you simply act in the direction of the goal, you have attained Ri.


  1. Nice post Josh!

    Thanks for making me think: I tend to think about providing "value" to the company, whatever that is and not just about the software, but in the software realm, that's very well put. Breaking down "value" and really defining it for each context is important in understanding if you're succeeding.

    And now, because I'm a developer myself, I'll nit-pick you a little and note that not delivering fast enough might not be a problem with the process, but could also be a problem with the number of resources the company has assigned to your project.

  2. Thanks, Mark. I hope that the goal provides a little more context for answering the question of "are we agile enough?"

    And you're correct that there are certainly factors outside the process that affect a team's ability to reach the goal. As with everything agile, the baseline is context dependent. Perhaps a way to sum up the questions would be "Are we, as a team, with the resources available to us, optimizing our ability to reach the goal?"