What is Adaptive Software Development (ASD)?

Adaptive Software Development (ASD) is an agile methodology that prioritizes flexibility, continuous learning, and collaboration.

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Adaptive Software Development (ASD) offers a compelling alternative
Adaptive Software Development (ASD) offers a compelling alternative for projects where flexibility and continuous learning are paramount.

Adaptive Software Development (ASD) emphasizes a mission-driven approach, focusing on the core objectives of the project rather than rigid plans. ASD encourages teams to speculate on solutions, collaborate closely with end-users for rapid feedback, and continuously learn to adapt and improve their work throughout short, iterative development cycles.

If you've worked in software development for any number of years you're likely to be familiar with several different software development processes, or methodologies that businesses use to manage software projects. The most likely candidates are Scrum, Kanban, or Waterfall - although no one wants to admit they're still using a waterfall-based methodology.

"Agile" methodologies were born out of the need to break away from slow, process-driven development that was difficult to adapt to the fast-paced software world and instead to prioritize individuals and their interactions over rigid processes, emphasizing working software instead of extensive documentation.

Although Scrum and Kanban are by far the most popular methodologies, at least, that I've come across in my time in the industry, there are many different methodologies that adopt similar, agile principles. I don't have a strong desire to label everything my team and I do, I feel very strongly that it's important to adopt and change "best practice" to fully suit your needs as a development team. Recently I've seen Adaptive Software Development bubble (ASD) to the surface, something that I've never come across before.

In digging further I couldn't find a complete and clear guide on what ASD is, how it compares to Scrum and Kanban, and what steps one would take to implement it. So this is my attempt to fill that void.

Origins of Adaptive Software Development

ASD is not new, by any means it appears to be one of the early agile methodologies, it finds its roots in the early 1990s with the work of Jim Highsmith and Sam Bayer. It stemmed from their experiences with Rapid Application Development (RAD), which prioritized speed but often lacked the flexibility to handle complex projects. ASD sought to strike a balance between rapid delivery, continuous adaptation, and the ability to manage complexity.

Core Principles of Adaptive Software Development

ASD is built upon a few fundamental principles that guide its approach to software development. It focuses more on results, as opposed to the tasks that make up those results. Or to put it another way, it focuses on delivering on a valuable mission, rather than adhering to a strict plan. It also enforces just enough rules to ensure an effective system, but few enough to ensure flexibility. I'm sure these core principles will resonate strongly with many software developers:

Change is Inevitable: ASD embraces the reality that requirements, technologies, and market conditions are in a state of flux. Rigid plans are often counterproductive, and adaptability is critical.

Continuous Learning: ASD emphasizes learning throughout the development process. Teams collect feedback, analyze results, and adjust their approach iteratively. This personally resonates with me on so many levels. Not only do you learn more about the requirements, limitations, and expectations of a new feature as you're working on it, but you also learn how not to implement something. Having the flexibility to re-think is essential to high-quality software.

Collaboration: Successful software development in a dynamic environment depends on open communication and collaboration among team members, clients, and stakeholders. Of course, this is absolutely essential for success and this is where all agile methodologies shine.

Collaboration is essential for success
Collaboration is essential for success

What are the three phases of Adaptive Software Development?

ASD employs an iterative process that emphasizes short cycles and continuous feedback:

The three phases of Adaptive Software Development are Speculate, Collaborate, and Learn.
The three phases of Adaptive Software Development are Speculate, Collaborate, and Learn.
  1. Speculate
  1. Collaborate
  1. Learn
    • Concurrent Testing: Testing is performed throughout the development life cycle to identify issues early and minimize risks. Think shift-left QA.
    • Reviews and Retrospectives: Teams regularly reflect on what's working well and what can be improved. Lessons learned are actively applied to future cycles.

What are the advantages of Adaptive Software Development?

By now the main advantages of ASD should be pretty clear. It's flexible, with the ability to adapt to changing requirements and priorities. It ensures transparency and collaboration across the entire team including stakeholders outside of the development team and reduces risk with a shift-left mentality to QA. But I think these are advantages to most agile frameworks, where ASD really brings home the bacon is with a specific focus on learning culture and end-user involvement.

"Fail often and fail fast while still delivering excellence"

By working closer with end-users you can fail often and fail fast while still delivering excellence. Why spend time speculating on how you think users are going to use a feature or guess what users find the most valuable? Get them involved and get it right.

Another advantage I really like is the focus on mission as opposed to a regimented plan. If your team is thinking less like: "My goal is to complete these 5 stories within the next two weeks" and more like: "Our goal is to deliver an amazing new shopping cart experience to our users", that change can be quite profound.

What are the disadvantages of Adaptive Software Development?

Adaptive Software Development isn't going to be perfect for every environment, some disadvantages to consider are:

Given these disadvantages you might be best to avoid ASD in the following scenarios:

Adaptive Software Development vs. Scrum vs. Kanban

All three methodologies fall under the umbrella of Agile development as previously discussed so there are inevitably many similarities. In the previous sections we've already highlighted some of the areas where ASD shines above Scrum and Kanban, let's take a more detailed look at their differences.

ASD Scrum Kanban
Planning Adaptive cycles based on features Time-boxed iterations called Sprints Continuous flow, focused on individual work items
Change management Highly adaptable within a cycle Changes deferred to subsequent Sprints (unless critical) Accommodates change, emphasis on limiting Work In Progress (WIP)
Roles Fewer defined roles, flexible team structure Clear roles: Product Owner, Scrum Master, Development Team Collective responsibility without clearly defined roles
Meetings As needed, focus on collaboration Defined meetings: Sprint Planning, Daily Stand-ups, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective Some defined meetings, not strictly enforced: Delivery planning, daily check-ins, etc.
Documentation Light documentation as needed Documentation as a product outcome, but not overly prescriptive No prescribed documentation
Metrics Outcome-focused (value delivered) Velocity, burndown, team, and customer satisfaction Lead time, cycle time & throughput
On Mobile? View the table in Google Sheets.

Key Differences in a Nutshell

Can They Co-Exist?

As I stated at the start of this article, I'm a strong believer in the right tool for the job, if one of these approaches doesn't perfectly fit your needs then chop and change to ensure you and your team can be as effective as possible. Some suggestions could be:

How to get started with Adaptive Software Development?

When researching ASD another area I found lacking was tips on how to get started implementing ASD in your team/organisation. I'm certainly no expert in ASD, but I have implemented other agile principles in several teams in the past. This is how I'd go about adopting Adaptive Software Development today.

Team Preparation and Mindset

Project Setup

Form a cross-functional team with the necessary skills
Form a cross-functional team with the necessary skills

Get going

With everyone trained on the core principles, a clear vision, and the right team in place, it's time to take action. Start small with a pilot project until you find your feet and ensure Leadership is fully aligned with the expectations of your new approach.

1. Speculate Phase

2. Collaborate Phase

3. Learn Phase

Even though ASD tends to be quite documentation-light, I believe it's important to maintain enough documentation to make knowledge transfer and project continuity possible so ensure to feed this into your processes.

ASD demands a high degree of trust and commitment within the team. The entire team must believe in the vision for the end result but also in the process that'll get them there.


Adaptive Software Development (ASD) offers a compelling alternative for projects where flexibility and continuous learning are paramount. If you're facing uncertain requirements, evolving market needs, or want to maximize end-user value, ASD's focus on speculation, collaboration, and rapid iteration can be transformative.

ASD's success depends heavily on a collaborative team mindset, open communication, and the ability to adapt to change quickly. It may not be ideal for scenarios where requirements are well-defined upfront, strict deadlines and budgets are non-negotiable, or teams are less experienced with agile principles.

Whether you adopt ASD wholeheartedly or blend its elements with other Agile methodologies, the core principles are valuable for any software development team. By prioritizing adaptability, user feedback, and continuous learning, you can increase your chances of delivering software that truly meets the ever-evolving needs of your users and the market.

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