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The Heart of Agile

Heart of Agile

In 2016, Alistair Cockburn, one of the signers of the Agile Manifesto for Software Development, wrote a piece called “The Heart of Agile.” If you haven’t read this 4-page document, I encourage you to do so.

Alistair felt that Agile had lost its way. Agile needed to get back to core principles, and he identified four words that he felt represented the heart of Agile:

  • Collaborate
  • Deliver
  • Reflect
  • Improve


Heart of Agile

As I think about how marketers re-invent marketing and rediscover the joy of marketing, Alistair’s heart of agile resonates with me. Iteration loops like this one are at the core of what we’re trying to do as modern marketers. 

It all begins with getting out of our silos and collaborating on the work. Whether we form cross-functional teams (my preference) or simply stop working in silos and collaborate to deliver work, working together is critical to delivering both the efficiency we’re looking for, better quality, and more joy in working with our fellow marketers.

Next, we have to deliver. As modern marketers, we can’t hide behind vanity metrics. We have to deliver outcomes, not just outputs. We have to deliver better experiences for customers, and we have to deliver business results.

I would probably use the word Evaluate rather than reflect, but it’s key that we reflect/evaluate after we deliver, using both quantitative feedback (metrics) and qualitative feedback. What went well? What could we have done better?

For the last step, it’s not enough to reflect; we have to act on our reflections. We actually have to improve, which takes us around the iteration, and puts us right back to collaborating on something even better than our previous attempt.

Shu, Ha, Ri

Alistair expands on the heart of Agile using the concepts of Shu, Ha, and Ri. Shuhari is a Japanese approach to skills development, particularly in martial arts. At the Shu stage, you are a beginner, simply trying to copy the practices and techniques of your teachers without deviation. We might call this mastering the basics. At the Ha stage, you are starting to experiment with your own style, trying new things, some of which will work, some of which won’t. You are still very conscious of your movements and practices. We might call this going beyond the basics. At the Ri stage, you have mastered your art. You have your own style, and most of what you do is so deeply ingrained; it is very difficult for you to explain how you do it. You act without thought because you have such deep mastery.

We can take each one of the concepts in the heart of Agile and expand them. As someone practicing Agile increases their mastery, their understanding of collaboration is deeper. They add these additional skills and practices, and they adopt additional practices of their own. At some point, they reach such mastery of collaboration that they don’t do it consciously, and they can’t tell you why or how everyone works so well with them. 

Here are some ways we might expand  the skills and practices of Collaboration:

Heart of Agile Collaboration

Much of what helps us be better collaborators is what I think of as Agile values: trust, respect, transparency, listening & sharing, and courage. These values are just as important as the skills and methodologies associated with Agile.

Here is an expanded model of the heart of Agile:

Heart of Agile expanded

This is my expansion, adapted for marketing and based on my experience. It consists of 23 practices and skills in addition to the four keywords of the heart of Agile. And while it may seem like a lot to master, many of you have already developed many of these skills. You’ve learned to respect others, build trust, analyze data, and take a solutions focus. And perhaps you’ve mastered more of these skills.

I’d like to hear from you about this approach. Do the words of the heart of Agile resonate with you? How would you expand upon each of them? What has been your journey to mastery of marketing agility?