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What makes processes agile?

The key thing that makes processes agile is "reduction of work in progress". Traditionally, projects' processes view and partition the whole project: for example software development processes that divide the life-cycle into phases like Requirements, High-level Design, Detailed Design, Code and Build, Integration and Testing, Maintenance. Each phase of the project transforms the whole output from the previous phase into the relevant output products for that phase. You could represent such a lifecycle in this way, where each step, T, takes the artifacts, A, from the previous step and delivers them to the next step.


The major problem with this model is that every step must be completed for every part of the project before any delivery (the so-called "big-bang" delivery). There's a lot of work in progress in this model, and that means a lot of risk and a high level of required investment.

In contrast, an agile lifecycle defines the necessary transformations in the process, not for the whole project, but for a single requirement (“features” in FDD, “user stories” in XP, or “use cases” in UP). The release cycle, which is built around the process for delivering single requirements, ensures that benefits can be delivered sooner and in priority order. Should requirements change it no longer involves the loss of such significant amounts of work. At each release there is much less work in progress and value is delivered continually, rather in the single - and very risky - big-bang.
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