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Modern Agile and Heart of Agile: A new focus for agile development

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant
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Recently there's been some new thinking around agile methodologies and processes to possibly bring those disillusioned with agile and scrum back into the fold. Two movements have emerged: Agile 2016 keynote speaker, Joshua Kerievsky's "Modern Agile" and Agile Manifesto signatory Alistair Cockburn’s "Heart of Agile."

Both emphasize getting back to basics, using a principle-based strategy that  can be used beyond software development. The industry has become overloaded with techniques, processes, methodologies and tools that have fallen under the agile umbrella.

Many consider these more marketing hype than agile, feeling they are moving away from the simplicity that the agile principles promote. Both Modern Agile and Heart of Agile aim to move agile to the next level, not by adding complexity, but by simplifying— stressing only adherence to four principles.

Here's a review of these two trends with some insights into how they intend to change agile thinking.

Modern Agile

When asked whether Modern Agile was a framework or methodology, Kerievsky answered it was a “sticker,” referring not only to the literal sticker he’d made available, but to the stickiness of the model. Indeed, Kerievsky stays away from terminology like “framework” or “methodology,” emphasizing that Modern Agile is a community sharing stories that are based on four guiding principles:

  • Make people awesome
  • Make safety a prerequisite
  • Experiment and learn rapidly
  • Deliver value continuously

But wait a minute. Isn’t the Agile Manifesto based on four value statements? In fact, agile proponents have stressed the importance of using the Manifesto and the corresponding 12 principles to guide those doing agile development—that “agile” is not a methodology but a mindset built on the values and principles. How is this different? Is Kerievsky proposing rewriting the Agile Manifesto?

In fact, Kerievsky is suggesting that the Manifesto may be outdated. In his keynote at the Agile 2016 conference, Kerievsky explains how each of the guiding principles from Modern Agile takes those values and principles from the Manifesto and expands them to apply beyond the world of software development, providing a more up-to-date approach.

Kerievsky maps the four guiding principles to the four Manifesto statements, explaining how Modern Agile is more in line with today’s worldview. At the end of his keynote, he gives his reasoning.

  • Rather than “customer collaboration over contract negotiation,” Modern Agile’s “Make people awesome” is more important for our focus. We want our entire ecosystem to be awesome.
  • Though “working software over comprehensive documentation” was great in 2001, today we want to "deliver value continuously," he says. “The bar has been raised."
  • “Responding to change over following a plan” was incredibly important when we wanted to defeat waterfall with agile, he explains. Now we want to “experiment and learn rapidly” because “sometimes we don’t even know what the problem is.”
  • “Individuals and interactions” could be replaced by “make safety a prerequisite.” We want to provide psychological safety in our interactions.

Kerievsky humbly suggests that the original Manifesto statements are “useful but historic” and that we “consider Modern Agile to be our new goal.”

Heart of Agile

Alistair Cockburn’s “Heart of Agile,” similarly touts the simplicity of four actions: collaborate, deliver, reflect, and improve. Cockburn, like Kerievsky, avoids labeling “Heart of Agile” as a “framework,” “methodology,” or “process.”

So, how do you label the Heart of Agile? Apparently, that question has been asked enough that Cockburn created a Webpage titled, "What do I call the Heart of Agile methodology?" with the tongue in cheek answer, “I think I’ll call it ‘Do this: collaborate, deliver, reflect, and improve.’”

Cockburn, who was a signatory of the original Agile Manifesto, explains why he felt a change was needed. “Agile has become overly decorated. Let’s scrape away those decorations for a minute, and get back to the center of agile.”

The pictorial representation of the Heart of Agile is a diamond with each of the four actions in quadrants and a heart at the center of the diamond.

Cockburn explains that each of the four actions can be further expanded using the Shu-Ha-Ri concept of skill progression. And while the diagram then extends out with more specific actions to complement the four primary actions, Cockburn, much like a yoga instructor, highlights the need to “return to center” where the heart of agile resides. At the center, he’s added a fourth stage “Kokoro,” meaning "heart" in Japanese.

The ‘Ri” stage of Shu-Ha-Ri is one in which the student is no longer a student, but has mastered the skill such that they are able to intuitively innovate. In the “conscious competence” learning model they would be considered the highest level of mastery. In the “unconscious competence” stage, the skill has become second nature.

Cockburn is suggesting that the final stage, “Kokoro,” is one in which the ultimate master of the skill is able to coach others to reach this higher level of proficiency by encouraging them to master the basics. "Wax on. Wax off".


Since both Modern Agile and the Heart of Agile carry similar messages—a return of agile to basics—rather than discuss the differences between the two, an important question is whether either of these new philosophies will change the face of agile? Will those who have become frustrated with overwhelming methodologies find peace in a return to simplicity?

One could argue the new models might add to the confusion. We now have two more theories and we don’t even know what to call them. They are decidedly not methodologies or frameworks, but most closely resemble the original Agile Manifesto. As a trainer and coach myself in agile practices, I cringe at the thought that in trying to simplify, we may be adding confusion to the question "what is agile."

On the other hand, we would not be practicing what we preach if we were not always looking for ways to improve. The Agile Manifesto and the 12 principles are 16 years old and we, as agilists, should be reflecting on how we can tailor these for our own situation. Agile is being used outside of software development and the new models suggested by Kerievsky and Cockburn provide some useful insights in ways to use agile beyond software development as well as to reduce complexity.

Kerievsky believes that companies are experiencing failure because they purchase expensive agile planning tools and those tools and outdated agile methods fail to help manage risk or produce better business outcomes. “Agile is about moving with quick, easy grace, as the dictionary tells us," Kerievsky says. "It requires an understanding of how to evolve a solution from a primitive whole to a sophisticated solution, learning valuable information from feedback, adjusting plans, improving the process, and ultimately balancing the needs of customers and the quality of the code.”

Kerievski sites Etsy and Google as examples in which Modern Agile’s principle "make safety a prerequisite" was used to providing added value to the organization.

Continuous evolution

While it’s unlikely that the Agile Manifesto will be rewritten—that suggestion was put to bed in 2011—it makes sense for us to recognize that even the Manifesto does not need to be set in stone. Rather than argue about the exact wording, both Kerievsky and Cockburn carry messages of continual growth by seeking almost a spiritual truth. That truth will not be the same for everyone and so each organization must find their own truth, striving to instill the agile mindset that resonates for them.


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