I've just finished reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It's the book everyone says you need to read if you are involved in startups, although it is not without criticism. Let's be clear, this is not a book that is going to win awards for the quality of writing or exposition, but the ideas it contains certainly make a valuable contribution to the debate.
I'm not going to discuss the ideas in the book or their merits, many people much smarter than I have done so already. I'm going to talk a little about how we tend to bend language in the business community.
The Lean Startup is fundmanetally about two ideas: science and agility. Ries advocates an approach to business strongly informed by the scientic method, and is a firm believer in following a repeatable and proven process to making business decisions. You come up with a hypothesis, you decide how to test in, and then you go about collecting the data to either validate or falsify this hypothesis. Follow this process and with some luck your business should slowly improve. By making decisions based on this process you can be more agile and flexible by avoiding internal politics (you are using data not decisions) and people stalling, and can get into the habit of changing things regularly.
This word agile is one many of us have come across before in another context, that of The Agile Manifesto. Here it is:
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. That sounds very different to Rie's scientific method driven approach. You might even say they are contradictory philosophies. And yet proponents of both approaches would say they are aimed towards bringing about a more agile business.
Neither of these approaches is wrong. It is extremely unlikely either is entirely correct. Both have value. Nevertheless, it is important to be clear on what we are talking about. 'Agile' is not the only popular business word to have been overloaded with multiple meanings that don't necessarily line up. Probably safest to sit down, think about what you really mean and want to say in concrete terms and say it, rather than appealing to generic schools or vocabulary.