This is a question I get asked quite a lot and most people think that the answer is “waterfall,” “planned” or even “predictable.” On occasion I’ve had people suggest the opposite of Agile is “inflexible” or maybe “rigid.” Although all of these suggestions are all good candidates, I think there’s a better one.
Working in an Agile way means accepting the uncertain nature of life. It means leaving the future open and working in a way that allows us to adapt to any changes that might occur.
Change is inevitable
Working in this adaptive way is more costly and not defining the future in detail leaves us feeling uncomfortable but planning and working incrementally allows us to more easily and cheaply incorporate change when it happens, as it inevitably will.
Our minds crave certainty about the future, so detailed plans give us comfort and a sense of achievement. It makes sense to us to invest a lot, physically and emotionally, in making those plans. The picture of the future that these plans portray, gives us great satisfaction. The plans make us feel good!
Unfortunately, our ability to predict the future is appallingly poor. The plans we make are based on assumptions. Assumptions that often turn out not to be true, causing the plans we invested so much effort into to be wrong. What made so much sense in the beginning now turns out to have been a waste.
Adapting to change
Now we need to change the plan. The plan with which we were very satisfied and that has a lot of physical and emotional investment in it. Changing the plan means accepting we were wrong – an expensive business on both counts.
A more optimal strategy is to make ourselves adaptable to change so that when it occurs, we can cope more easily. However, this means accepting our limitations as forecasters and investing more in things that we know may not happen. Something that humans have a natural resistance to.
A detailed plan with a picture of a certain future gives us great comfort and satisfaction now, but will probably give us massive problems later when its inaccuracies manifest themselves. As they undoubtedly will.
Agile, not Fragile
The more detailed the plan, the more likely it is to be wrong. The more detailed the plan, the more fragile it is.
That’s the true answer to the question, “What’s the opposite of Agile?” The opposite of Agile is Fragile.