November 1st, 2023 · Written by Zippora Lau
The agile development life cycle is a system that allows software development teams to build products faster and more efficiently. But for those new to agile, the terminology and stages can be confusing.
Agile software development refers to a set of methods and practices based on the values and principles expressed in the Agile Manifesto. Instead of a traditional waterfall approach, agile methodologies involve iterative development and frequent collaboration with stakeholders.
This complete guide breaks down the agile life cycle in simple terms, from the Agile Manifesto values to release planning, sprint execution, and beyond. Whether you’re exploring agile for the first time or looking to deepen your knowledge, read on to learn what makes agile teams work.
To understand agile software development, we must first talk about the Agile Manifesto. This document originated in 2001 when a group of software developers met to find better ways of building technology.
They synthesized their ideas into 4 core values and 12 principles that crystallized the agile philosophy. Here are the fundamental Agile Manifesto values in a nutshell:
Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools
Agile teams focus on enabling people and promoting useful conversations vs abiding by strict processes. Adaptive workflows outpace detailed tools.
Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation
The top priority is continuously delivering working software rather than documenting speculative features.
Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation
Agile thrives on constant customer engagement vs only agreeing on strict contractual terms upfront.
Responding to Change Over Following a Plan
The team embraces changing requirements even late in development, adapting as they go.
This preference for flexibility over rigidity forms the bedrock of agile software development. But why does this matter?
Traditional "waterfall" development follows strict sequential steps with little room for changing course. This may cause problems like:
The agile approach flips traditional development on its head through:
Agile teams ship working software in short cycles, from 1 week to 1 month, rather than massive milestones, accelerating value delivery to customers.
By releasing smaller increments, teams can gather feedback and adapt quickly based on real-world learning. Delivering working functionality frequently also increases customer satisfaction and reduces risk.
In agile, customers see the product early and often, providing constant feedback to steer the right solutions vs waiting until after launch for input.
This allows teams to validate assumptions and ensure they are solving actual pain points. Constant customer collaboration enables them to adjust the course based on user needs vs forging blindly ahead.
Agile promotes regularly aligning with business stakeholders on the most valuable features. By engraining customer priorities into decision-making, the team builds solutions that offer maximum ROI.
Features that deliver the biggest wins get addressed first. This maximizes business impact and ensures teams work on meaningful functionality vs gold-plating.
One of agile's most significant advantages is embracing changing requirements, even late in development. Since the environment is constantly evolving, so must agile teams.
Agile provides flexibility to respond to shifts in the marketplace or business priorities. Teams can pivot gracefully vs being locked into outdated plans and specs.
When software is built and tested iteratively in agile, quality issues surface early so the task owner can quickly fix them.
Continuous integration and automated testing enable teams to maintain high quality as the application grows. Delivering incrementally also increases stability and reduces regression risks.
Agile team members feel a greater sense of ownership and empowerment by self-organizing and directing their efforts, productivity and engagement increase.
The collaborative, agile environment also promotes happier teams through regular feedback and working face-to-face. Research shows agile practitioners are more satisfied than traditional teams.
Agile provides a major competitive advantage in the fast pace of the digital economy.
An agile life cycle is composed of iterative “sprints” that each result in potentially shippable product increments.
Let’s break down what happens in each phase:
The agile journey starts with high-level strategic themes that capture the vision for the product. The product roadmap outlines big-picture initiatives and goals for bringing this vision to life.
Product managers prioritize roadmap themes based on business value. The roadmap is a guiding compass that informs what the team works on at a high level.
The product roadmap gets broken down into specific releases. A release bundles together features that provide end-user value.
The team identifies major functionality batches and estimates the effort level of each. This allows planning releases within given timeframes, like quarterly.
Each release gets divided into 1-4 week sprints or iterations for execution. In sprint planning, the team selects the user stories or requirements that can be finished in a sprint.
The sprint backlog represents the team’s commitment to the sprint. It includes granular tasks needed to complete each user story.
Now, the rubber meets the road. The team designs, develops, tests, and documents the functionality to satisfy the sprint commitments.
Daily standup meetings keep everyone in sync. New increments are integrated continuously throughout the sprint.
At the end of each sprint, a review meeting is held to demo the new functionality. Stakeholders provide feedback to help validate assumptions and realign priorities.
By keeping sprints short, the team can adapt based on feedback before getting too far down the wrong path.
Retrospectives enable continuous process improvement. The team reflects on what went well, where issues occurred, and how to improve in the next sprint.
This inspect-and-adapt cycle is key for incrementally optimizing efficiency.
The sprint then repeats, allowing teams to learn and refine as they build product capabilities iteratively. But what does this look like for developing a new product vs maintaining an existing one?
Agile can be used to evolve a product from the initial concept all the way through retirement. Here are the typical stages explained:
The first stage of agile product development involves identifying initial ideas and opportunities around the product vision. During conceptualization, the team researches target users and market needs through methods like surveys, interviews, and competitive analysis. This market research informs the core features and value proposition of the product.
The team defines the minimum viable product (MVP) - the simplest possible version that can be released to gather initial customer feedback. They also create guiding messaging like an elevator pitch and mission statement to articulate the purpose behind the product.
Additionally, the team uses the research to outline personas - fictional users representing customer segments. Detailed personas help guide design to ensure the product resonates with diverse target users. Finally, conceptualization involves translating findings into user stories - descriptions of desired functionality from the user's perspective. This research and alignment on the MVP provides the foundation for the rest of the agile development lifecycle.
In the release planning stage, the team takes the high-level MVP and roadmap and breaks it down into phased releases. They work with stakeholders to prioritize proposed features and initiatives based on factors like business value, time to market, and dependencies.
Each release is then estimated at a high level based on story points - a unit of measure representing complexity and effort. The team also defines specific success metrics and measurable outcomes to track for each release. This could include goals around user adoption, revenue, market share, or other KPIs.
Features and larger epics get assigned to one of the phased releases based on priority and technical and logical dependencies. For example, the team will map out that certain features can only be built once foundational components are in place. This release planning process establishes a guiding roadmap for the agile team to execute through iterative sprints.
During the sprint execution stage, the agile team works in rapid, iterative cycles to build the product incrementally. Each sprint begins with sprint planning, where the team pulls user stories and tasks from the prioritized product backlog into the sprint backlog.
Team discussions during planning focus on clarifying requirements, calling out dependencies, and exploring design options. Then, in the active sprint, developers write code, execute tests, and document the functionality. Daily standup meetings keep everyone in sync on progress and blockers.
The team demonstrates working functionality at the end of each sprint to get user feedback. These demos, along with burndown charts showing the remaining work, provide ongoing progress visibility. Retrospectives also identify process improvements for subsequent sprints.
Through this iterative approach of planning, building, testing, and reflecting, agile teams can deliver working software quickly while continuously incorporating user input. Frequent sprint cycles enable constant course correction toward the optimal product.
During this stage, the team prepares to launch the working software into production for real-world usage. They determine the packaging strategy and rollout cadence that aligns with the product roadmap. For example, major releases every quarter vs minor releases monthly.
Extensive end-to-end regression testing and user acceptance testing are performed to catch bugs and validate the release. Any critical bugs or performance issues are fixed before deployment. The team also finalizes supporting documentation, training materials, and marketing collateral needed for launch.
When ready, the release is officially launched and distributed for general availability. This could involve deploying to app stores, updating servers, or distributing software to users. Post-release, the team closely monitors adoption, provides technical support, and gathers customer feedback on real-world usage. This data informs upcoming development priorities and future product optimizations.
Once the product is live, the team focuses on maintenance and support activities while continuing to iterate. They closely monitor analytics for usage trends, feature adoption rates, and overall user sentiment. This data directly feeds into developing minor enhancements and tweaks based on real user feedback.
Day-to-day, the team manages incoming bug reports, troubleshoots issues and resolves customer support requests to keep the product running smoothly. They also handle all activities needed to maintain the underlying infrastructure and production environment. Deploying patches, upgrades, backups, and monitoring fall into this category.
For new development, the team continues sprint planning to work on major releases that align with the ongoing product roadmap. They also retire low-value functionality that no longer fits the strategic product direction based on learnings, freeing resources for more impactful work. These maintenance activities sustain value for existing customers while innovating for the future.
Eventually, products and features will reach their end-of-life and need to be retired or replaced with newer solutions. During this phase, the team creates a retirement plan and notifies users of what will be sunsetted and when.
They provide resources to help users smoothly transition to replacement products or features, minimizing workflow disruption. A concrete timeline for turning off access, services, and deprecated APIs is established and communicated.
Behind the scenes, the team works to systematically decommission infrastructure, retire code repositories, migrate data, and handle other closure tasks. Documentation is archived properly to ensure regulatory compliance is maintained even after product retirement.
Careful coordination goes into retiring products while preserving critical data assets and relationships with users. With agile methods, retirement is simply part of the continuous evolution and improvement process.
The iterative nature of agile allows for continuous feedback and refinement of each product stage.
Agile teams are structured as small, cross-functional units designed to deliver working product iterations quickly. Here are the typical agile team roles:
Product Owner - Represents the business/customer. They manage the product roadmap and prioritize work based on ROI.
Scrum Master - Coaches the team on agile practices and looks to resolve impediments.
Development Team - A small group (usually 5-9 people) who do the hands-on product design, coding, testing, etc. They own determining how much work can be done per sprint.
Customers - Provide regular feedback on the product and validation of business needs.
Other Roles - Specialists like UX designers, DBAs, and analysts work with the core team to provide additional expertise.
This small, integrated structure allows agile teams to act decisively and deliver work efficiently. Communication flows quickly across disciplines, enabling continuous collaboration.
Meaningful customer engagement is the engine that powers product innovation using this team model. Frequent feedback guides development priorities in a meaningful way throughout each iteration.
Modern companies must build the right solutions quickly before the competition. Agile development combines iterative sprints, constant feedback, and a focus on people over process to thrive amid fluid realities.
By breaking projects into small but shippable increments, teams minimize risk and adapt based on real user data vs guesswork. They spend less time documenting and more time experimenting and coding the next version.
Frequent delivery paves the way for faster user feedback. Working software drives discussions versus theoretical plans and specs. This focus on speed and customer value is what makes agile a game-changer.
At Digital Creative, we leverage agile software development to deliver maximum value for our clients. Agile provides the speed, flexibility, and collaboration needed to thrive in today's competitive digital landscape. By working in rapid iterations, continuously integrating feedback, and focusing on our clients' top business priorities, we can develop innovative solutions that solve real problems for end users.
Our cross-functional agile teams keep the end goal in mind while adapting to evolving needs. We embrace change as a constant that should be leveraged, not fought against.
Acceptance Criteria - Conditions that a user story must meet to be considered complete from the user's perspective. Defines the boundaries of user stories.
Agile Manifesto - The founding principles and values that shape the agile methodology, outlined in the Agile Manifesto published in 2001. Emphasizes individuals over processes, working software over documentation, customer collaboration over contracts, and responding to change over following a plan.
Automated Testing - Automating tests via code to validate software quality on every code change. Enables continuous integration and frequent regression testing with minimal effort.
Backlog Grooming - An ongoing process where the product owner and team refine and maintain the product backlog by clarifying and re-prioritizing items.
Burndown Chart - A visual tracking of the remaining work left to complete in a sprint or release. Shows progress decreasing ("burning down") over time towards zero outstanding work.
Code Refactoring - Modifying code to improve its internal structure without changing its external behavior. Refactoring improves nonfunctional attributes like readability, simplicity, and maintainability.
Continuous Delivery - Developing software to be released to production anytime through stringent automated testing and deployment practices.
Continuous Integration - Merging developer code changes frequently (at least daily) into the main code repository and running automated builds and tests to catch issues early.
Daily Standup - A daily sync meeting where each team member shares their work completed, plans, and impediments. Typically time-boxed to 15 minutes.
Epic - A large user story that can be broken down into smaller stories. Epics capture higher-level functionality that cuts across multiple agile sprints.
Increment - The working, tested software product created during each sprint. Increments build upon each other toward the final product vision.
Minimum Viable Product (MVP) - The simplest product that can be released with enough core features to satisfy early customers, provide feedback, and validate product assumptions.
Personas - Detailed descriptions of fictional users representing different customer segments. Used to guide software design and ensure it meets the needs of diverse users.
Planning Poker - A consensus-based estimation technique where team members "play cards" to vote on a user story's complexity points. Prevents groupthink.
Product Backlog - The prioritized list of features, bugs, and other items needed to build the product. Owned and groomed by the Product Owner.
Product Owner - The agile role responsible for defining user stories, prioritizing the backlog, and representing business/customer needs on the team.
Retrospective - A meeting where the team reflects on what worked well, what didn't, and how to improve in the next sprint. Done after each sprint.
Scrum - The most commonly used agile framework. Scrum emphasizes working in short sprints, daily standups, and close team collaboration.
Scrum Master - The team member responsible for upholding agile values and practices. They guide the team, clear impediments, and facilitate key scrum ceremonies.
Sprint - A fixed time period (usually 2-4 weeks) where the team works to complete specific product backlog items. Represents a repeating work cycle.
Sprint Backlog - The set of product backlog items selected by the team to complete in a particular sprint during sprint planning.
Sprint Planning - A meeting where the team selects and commits to user stories for an upcoming sprint after estimating effort with story points.
Sprint Review - A meeting at the end of each sprint where the team demonstrates completed functionality to stakeholders for feedback.
Story Points - A unit used to estimate the relative effort and complexity of a user story. Allows forecasting through velocity tracking.
Technical Debt - Shortcuts or suboptimal code that add future rework costs in exchange for speed now. Needs to be managed and paid down.
User Acceptance Testing (UAT) - Formal testing done by end users to validate that software works as expected in real-world use. Ensures alignment with business needs.
User Story - A description of required functionality told from the user's perspective. Formatted as As a ___, I want ___ so that ___.
Velocity - The sum of story points completed by a team within a sprint. Used for planning and estimating future sprints.
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