Interview with Alistair Cockburn

Alistair Cockburn needs no introduction to the Agile world. I have been lucky enough to get into a conversation with him.

For the uninitiated, he is one of the original signatories of Agile Manifesto, internationally renowned IT strategist, expert on agile development, use cases, process design, project management, and object-oriented design, and a Poet. Here is our conversation on what is Agile and what is not Agile.

Q1. People recognize Alistair Cockburn as one of the original signatories of Agile Manifesto. What alternative introduction you wish to give yourself?

Alistair: If there are only a few words, and to a technical audience, that is fine. If you have more time, more words, then I guess I would like you to say that I have spent my whole life traveling, living in different cultures. This brings to my work a particular perspective about not intervening in cultures. Maybe also that my favorite activities are dancing, learning, and traveling.

Q2. From 2001 to 2016, how do you see the Agile methodology evolving?

Alistair: There were a number of agile methodologies in the 90s: Crystal, Scrum, FDD, DSDM… XP was the dominant one in 2001 when we wrote the manifesto. At that time, people were very focused on finding the right methodology (XP was very good, for example). Two of us in the room (Jim Highsmith and me) wanted a multitude of methodologies available – we want all methodologies used to be this thing we called agile.

Adaptive was the other word we almost chose. Methodologies should be adaptive, that is, the team should change their working rules every 3-6 months, to keep up with changing team members, state of the project, changing competitors.

In 2001, that was still pretty strange, even in that room. They thought XP was already adaptive. By today’s standards, XP is very strict.

“Adaptive” methodologies are no longer strange, they are the most common thing, even though some people keep looking for a single scalable model (which they won’t find).

I love that these days, simply “delivering software” isn’t enough. We do that, we know how to do that, many teams do that. So now, we get to focus on the meaning and the impact of what we are delivering.

This is the new frontier, and it is exciting.

Q3. What is Agile and what is not Agile?

Alistair: ‘Agile’ is an ordinary word in English, it means “able to move quickly and easily” (online dictionary), with an emphasis on changing direction. It was for that reason we chose the word to match the sense of the way we wanted to work, when discussing our approach to software development back in 2001. Once we had the word in place, we had to decide what it meant to us for the purpose of writing software (and more generally, of designing products). We selected 4 values, or ways of centering ourselves in the world while working. We chose:

  • Individuals and their interactions
  • Working software (or product, or more generally, accurate feedback)
  • Customer collaboration
  • Responding to change

We decided that other people might center themselves in other ways and places, but these four would be a good to characterize our way.

That is all. There is no more to “agile software development” than that.

We added some principles afterwards, to help people get started, but didn’t have unanimous agreement on those as we did on the four values. Therefore, with the 12 principles, you might find some that you resonate more with than others, as do all of us authors.

So to answer your question,

  • Can we move and change direction quickly and easily?
  • Do we center ourselves on these four values?

If you are going to say you are doing agile software development, those are the only tests there are. All else is someone particular’s personal addition.



Dr. Alistair Cockburn is named one of “The All-Time Top 150 i-Technology Heroes” in 2007. He is a project witchdoctor and IT strategist, best known for co-authoring the Manifesto for Agile Software Development and articulating how to write effective use cases. His specialties are organizational (re)design and project management strategies.

When not doing all that, he likes to travel, dance, dive, or sit underwater.

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