From time to time I hear, see, or read how Agile is explained as "it is no news" or "it is the same old good project management, with some twists". My impression is that this is done as an attempt to make Agile less scary to make it easier to "sell" to management. I think this is a serious mistake. I think that in subtle but fundamental and important ways - at its heart and roots - Agile is different.
The difference is subtle because you cannot observe it directly. Any and all of the things you can see in an Agile-honouring organisation can easily be copied. There are software delivered in short and regular intervals, there are team retrospectives, and daily team-meeting. And all of these practises can be used in a traditionally managed organisation as well, but it does not make that organisation Agile.
To me the fundamental difference is in how you look at humans.
Traditional management use humans as building parts to build a software-producing machine, or a factory. In this machine people are the moving parts and they are strung together by a processes that dictated their interactions. At the end of the process, software emerges. It is very mechanical. For example, in this world it would be very strange if people would arbitrarily start changing the process - then the designed process might just break and who knows what would happen. So that cannot be allowed.
I might be guilty of over-exaggerating, but the practice of constantly referring to people as "resources" to me unveils an outlook on people that I find scary.
The view of humans in Agile is different. In Agile we acknowledge that it is the engagement and skills of people that make things happen. We make it a first-order concern that people should feel motivated and proud. And instead of a mechanical world view, we rely on a more organic view of organisations. If people want to change the process they are not only allowed, they are encouraged to do that — even if we do not know the precise effect it will have on the overall system.
To explain this, I think it is easiest to look at the Agile Manifesto. The first of its values is:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
This is not a small thing. Here lays a fundamental difference in how we look at people and organisations. A traditional process is defined by a single person at a single point of time. However, the wisdom and insight of that person at that time is nothing - absolutely nothing - compared to what can be achieved by having each involved person thinking and discussing with their peers - and doing so continuously. And if given the choice between an ever-so-well defined process on one side and trusting the wisdom of the crowd on the other hand, we chose the crowd any day of the week.
It is a little bit like democracy. We could trust a wise and benign emperor. However, we think we get a better result if all citizens engage in an open discussion. We create and change our laws according to that discussion - even if we do not know the result in advance.
In this perspective Agile is a celebration of the wonderful and mysterious system that emerge from initiatives that rise out of interaction between people that care.
This is also what can be seen in the fifth principle of the Agile Manifesto:
Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.
We actually trust that people want to work. We acknowledge that we need to give them the proper environment and tools, but that will be enough. There is no need to command and control. Things will just happen. It is a leap-of-faith to let control go. Organisations with traditional management dare not take that leap. Agile does.
So, when looking at a traditional organisation or project and comparing that one with one honouring Agile, you might not see much of a difference. But if you are inside of it, you feel the difference. It is there - at the heart. You feel trusted and empowered. And if you look closely you might see it as well - the small smile on peoples faces.
The difference is subtle. But it is fundamental. And it is important.
I am convinced that at its roots and heart - Agile is different.