Agile working - What does "agile" actually mean?

Agile working or an agile work organization aims to maximize the flexibility of companies while improving employee satisfaction at the same time. According to a study by Borisgloger Consulting, over 80% of managers rate agile methods as particularly positive.

Agile working methods - how companies increase their flexibility

Ever faster changing markets and the increasing complexity of economic activity require an increase in corporate efficiency and faster reaction times.

However, the traditional top-down approach to managing companies limits their ability to adapt to a dynamically changing market environment. Companies that transfer more responsibility to their employees and give them greater freedom of action tap into previously untapped potential for creativity and innovation.

Agile working in the company leads to accelerated decision-making. This paves the way for increased dynamism in product development, the optimization of work processes and an improvement in customer satisfaction. Last but not least, management shows appreciation for the self-organized teams by expanding their scope for action.

The concept of agile working promises significant increases in efficiency, improved customer loyalty and greater employee motivation.

Where does the word "agile" come from?

The term "agile" goes back to the Latin "agilis" ("active, mobile") and the verb "agere" ("to make, do, act").

In an economic context, "agility" refers to a company's ability to adapt quickly and flexibly to constantly changing circumstances both inside and outside the company.

"Agility" refers to an ability and skill, a behavior or a mindset.

  • As a capability, agility describes a potential for action.
  • Agility as a skill encompasses ability and actual application.
  • Agile behavior is expressed through actions that are directed towards the outside world.
  • "Mindset" refers to a state of mind, way of thinking or mentality.

The origins of agile working methods

The start of the "agile movement" dates back to February 2001. At that time, 17 software developers met in the US state of Utah to discuss the development of more flexible working methods in companies. The participants at this meeting of the digital economy drew up a "Manifesto for Agile Software Development" ("Agile Manifesto"), which describes the working methods of agile teams in four guiding principles and 12 principles. (The principles of agile working methods are now also practised by companies outside the software industry).

The Agile Manifesto is based, among other things, on the concept of agility developed by US sociologist Talcott Parsons in the mid-20th century. Parsons established that agility plays a crucial role in stabilizing social systems.

Some features of agile methods, such as team orientation and flexibility, are not fundamentally new to companies. However, against the backdrop of the information technology, digitalization and globalization that characterize today's economy, agile working methods are becoming highly topical and particularly important in the implementation of corporate strategies.

The intention of agile working methods

In view of the ever-shorter product and innovation cycles (also due to digital technologies), only those companies that significantly reduce their reaction times will survive on the market in the long term.

Agile methods aim to improve the adaptability of companies - against the backdrop of megatrends such as new work, digitalization, globalization and demographic change. Many proponents see agility as a "magic formula" for accelerated decision-making, innovative ideas and greater employee satisfaction.

Agile working methods correspond with flat hierarchies and communicative openness between the various departments of a company. Self-organized employees make all key decisions independently. In doing so, they are guided by the company's mission statement, defined missions and agreed goals.

Principles of agile working methods

A company structured according to agile methods consists of self-organized teams that are aligned with a common corporate mission statement.

  • People and interactions are given priority over processes and tools.
  • The focus is increasingly on the product. Documentation is reduced to the absolute minimum.
  • Customer benefit is at the center of all considerations. Cooperation with customers (including through involvement in product development) takes priority over lengthy contract negotiations.
  • The ability to react to change is more important for an agile organization than the implementation of rigid plans.

Advantage of agile working methods compared to traditional work organization

Agile working methods are replacing the "mechanistic" counter-concept, which is associated with the detailed definition and repetition of work processes and long-term plans.

Although traditional top-down organizations have proven to be effective in managing existing business, top-down management is no longer able to meet the flexibility requirements resulting from rapid market changes.

The most important elements of agile working methods

Agile working goes hand in hand with certain forms of work organization, collaboration and planning. In addition, agile working requires a special orientation of the corporate culture.

Self-organized teams

An agile team consists of a maximum of ten employees. Limiting the number of self-organized employees ensures sufficiently direct and intensive communication. Self-organized teams can work together on a permanent basis or for a limited period of time from the outset.

Self-organized employees make all key decisions independently. In doing so, they are guided by the corporate mission statement, defined missions and agreed objectives.

  • The team decides on the appropriate distribution of work, removes obstacles together and makes continuous improvements.
  • The team also checks the work results independently.

In view of the extensive self-organization of agile teams, each team member must have a high sense of responsibility.

Successful co-design within self-organized teams requires the voluntary participation of each individual. Collaboration in an agile team requires identification with agile work and enthusiasm for the team's goals.

The communication of self-organized teams

Regular check-ins increase the frequency of communication, ensure a regular exchange of knowledge within the teams and serve to link goals and tasks.

Agile working - agile communication

The retrospectives, which take place at least quarterly, promote internal communication and team processes and support the company in adapting to changing market requirements. However, agile working methods also include cross-team and cross-departmental communication.

Value orientation

Agility should create value. Each task aims to make a specific value contribution. The interests of the company and customers flow into the work of agile teams in a balanced way.

Involvement of customers in teamwork

Involving customers at an early stage of product development enables an earlier and more precise analysis of customer needs.

Step-by-step approach to planning

Agile planning involves the gradual development of goals and the implementation steps derived from them. Overly long-term plans do not fit into a fast-moving market environment.

Accordingly, the planning of the individual agile teams also takes place continuously and step by step. The current plan only extends to the end of a maximum time interval of several weeks.

Structures: changed distribution of tasks between management and agile teams

In an agile work organization, significant parts of the responsibility are shifted from management to the agile teams working independently.

While management continues to define the company's mission statement and strategy, the agile teams determine the operational approach. The teams therefore determine how the company's strategic goals are to be achieved based on their greater proximity to the market and customers(bottom-up planning).

  • The role of management is changing from guidance and control to encouraging and supporting employees.
  • Clear guidelines and objectives take the place of small-scale planning.

The necessary culture of trust for agile working

A "culture of allowing things to fail" (culture of trust) gives team members a sense of security. Employees are encouraged to express innovative ideas - without having to reckon with negative sanctions if an idea turns out not to be suitable after all.

The existence of a culture of trust is one of the essential prerequisites for the successful work of self-organizing teams. Trust promotes the ability to change quickly when parameters within or outside the company change.

Any necessary cultural change presupposes that the culture of trust is supported and practiced by all levels of a company's hierarchy.

Agile organization and corporate strategy

An agile approach requires an agile strategy at company level.

  • The basis of such a strategy is a vision that takes into account the specifics of the respective company (e.g. its products and services).
  • Missions, strategies or operational roadmaps are derived from such a company-specific vision and serve as guidelines for the members of agile teams.

Risks: What can jeopardize the success of self-organized teams?

Different suitability for agile working methods

Agile working is not equally suitable for all employees.

  • Agile working methods demand a high level of professional and personal skills from all team members . Self-organized employees must be able and willing to work independently, to make far-reaching decisions in line with company guidelines and to continuously develop their skills. However, some employees are already completely satisfied with the best possible fulfillment of the specifications they receive.
  • Only employees with mature personalities can meet the requirements of an agile team. However, while younger employees are still in the process of maturing, older employees are more mature, but often no longer as "agile" as required.
  • Agile work also requires a strong team orientation.

Agile methods: not very useful with necessarily detailed specifications

The concept of agile working is less suitable for production departments in which it is precisely defined which employee carries out which activity in detail.

Frictionless leap from top-down to bottom-up?

Many companies have been moving away from bottom-up approaches for many years. Companies are mostly managed according to the top-down principle. It is not uncommon for a rigid "implementation culture" to be created, which hardly allows even constructive contradictions from employees and sometimes even sanctions them rigorously.

Companies have often withdrawn authority from their employees under the top-down principle. Instead, a large number of rules and detailed control mechanisms were introduced.

The transition from a top-down to a bottom-up organization should take place gradually in order to limit the risks associated with such a transformation. The necessary development of a sometimes limited basis of trust requires, above all, a fundamental rethink on the part of managers - especially in management.

Without such a rethink, critics point out, the introduction of agile teams could prove to be nothing more than an extreme form of "selection of the best with a turbo-capitalist mindset".

Even if an agile work organization is introduced as far as possible, hierarchical organizational elements remain in place. The final decision-making right and thus the power in the traditional sense therefore remains with the company management.

Under what conditions can agile working work?

A company's first agile team should not be entrusted with extremely complex issues in order to ensure the success of a pilot project.

A shared understanding among team members about agile teamwork lays the foundations for team success. Obstacles on the way to the goal can be identified and solutions developed as part of a kick-off workshop.

An important key to the success of an agile team is regular communication between the team members. Tasks and progress made by the agile team can be visualized on a presentation wall.
A continuous change in the team composition contributes to new food for thought and to maintaining the innovative strength of a team.

Various measures support the success of agile working:

  • In-house trained or external agile coaches support the employees of the agile teams.
  • Training measures for agile teams, workshops or e-learning support are also helpful.
  • By involving the agile team in the selection of new employees, collaboration within the team is promoted.

Companies outside the software industry also report positive experiences with agile working methods. Self-organized teams are used successfully in the following areas, for example: Marketing and Sales, Product Development, Human Resources and IT.

Successful methods of agile working

An introduction to Scrum & Kanban

Agile working - introduction to Scrum


The most common method of agile working was named "Scrum" ("scrum") after a term from the sport of rugby. 80 percent of all companies in Germany that have agile teams work according to the Scrum methodology.

  • A short daily conference ("Daily Scrum", lasting a maximum of 15 minutes) is used to compare statuses.
  • Within the team, the "Product Owner" is responsible for prioritizing tasks, evaluating task completion and the required resources.
  • The "Scrum Master", the manager of an agile team organized according to the Scrum method, ensures compliance with the team rules and is also the coach of the Product Owner and the other team members.
  • Both the Product Owner and Scrum Master have influence over the team due to their expertise. However, neither functionary has a superior function vis-à-vis the other team members.


The Kanban method is used by 17 percent of all companies working with agile teams.

  • In contrast to the Scrum methodology, fixed management and moderator functions are dispensed with. Instead, the progress of work is documented on a "Kanban board".
  • Meetings between team members play a lesser role with Kanban than with Scrum. Therefore, the team has greater autonomy when using the Kanban methodology compared to Scrum teams.

Conclusion: Well-prepared agile working means more flexibility for companies

Agile working is a response to the increasing complexity of market challenges to which companies need to find an efficient answer. Self-organizing agile teams can significantly increase a company's adaptability by making quick decisions and involving customers in product development.

Agile teams make decisions about their approach and the resources required within the framework of the corporate mission statement and corporate strategy. The control tasks are carried out by the agile team itself.