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Getting on the same page with agile

In my last post a few months back, I defined agile as an organisational capability. This was intended to be the one of two or three blogs to make sense of agile, agility, Agile with a BIG A, and how it’s understood in an organisational context.

Through discussions with clients and industry peers, it’s become increasingly apparent that a conversation on Agile BIG A and agile little a is most valuable. to establish a common understanding of what ‘agile’ means to that business.

Start the conversation…

You may have heard your agile-savvy colleague ask you - do you mean agile with a BIG A or agile with a little a? Or perhaps you are asking the question yourself?

The first time I heard that had me spinning over to Google! So to drive the conversation that many of us are facing, here’s how I kick it off to explain the difference:

BIG A Agile

It’s common practice in the Agile community to use the big A when referring to the Agile Manifesto and its associated practices. You know the deal - scrum, stand-up meetings, work flow on a visible Kanban board, typically when working in a project environment.

For the newbies to this, here’s a quick overview: The Agile Manifesto was established in 2001 to bring about a balanced view of software development that would welcome adjustments and pace.

In this Manifesto we can see the elements that are core to change practitioners and leaders in an agile world: a focus on the customer, a nimble approach and value placed on people over process.

So, whilst this type of Agile was established for software development, the principles and values have a human-centric focus.

The application of BIG A Agile can be extended to non-software projects, especially with the themes of lean, team behaviours and customer-centricity.

Little a agile

Little a - that’s agile without the capital A is the adjective we use to describe the characteristics of being adaptive, flexible, and nimble of mind and in action. An athlete is nimble in action just as someone with a growth mindset and insightful thinking is agile of mind.

In my workshops and in one-on-one conversations, I draw up a flipchart (the title image) and post it on the wall to open the discussion. As the session progresses, I invite the participants to add their interpretations and any other relevant comments that come up, so they can start to shape what organisational agility looks like in the context of their business environment.

Let’s look at a definition of organisational agility, borrowed from McKinsey Quarterly:

…the capacity to identify and capture opportunities more quickly than rivals do…

When an organisation wants to become more agile, they look for ways to be responsive to external forces, be adaptive, deliver services and products to customers faster, think outside the box, and eliminate waste to improve effectiveness. To help them achieve this, they often recruit coaches and project managers who have experience in Agile software and product development. However, projects using Agile practices associated with software implementations will not necessarily make the organisation agile. Organisational agility needs people across the whole organisation (not just project team members) with the right mindset, behaviours and practices. Agile (yes, big A) project approaches will help, but will not achieve this alone.

Organisational agility is agile with a little a

We can see how the principles and values of BIG A also apply to little a. But little a is agile about everything, with an application that is broader, particularly an organisation being agile. Taken beyond software development, agile becomes a way of thinking and working that forms part of the organisational ecosystem.

It’s likely that you’ll also hear the two versions of the word ‘agile’ (that’s a BIG A and a little a) used interchangeably. When you hear the word ‘agile’ brought up in conversation, it’s a good idea to ask if they are talking about little a or BIG A.

So, if you haven’t already, kick off this conversation to plan how you will build organisational agility in your organisation, starting from a place of common understanding.

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