“Agile” has been a buzzword in the software industry for quite some time now. These days you will be surprised to hear if an IT project is not utilizing some form of agile methodology. However, in more recent times agile has been showing up in mainstream publications touting success in various non-software project settings. The Wall Street Journal recently posted on how modern families are using agile to improve communication. Here’s a recent TED talk about again, using agile in the family. Finally recent article on Forbes about how agile is the “best kept management secret on the planet”. Clearly, people outside of software are seeing value in the ideas and principles behind agile. Culture and organisational structure aside, what is agile that is so universally beneficial?
Let’s go back to the basic principles and philosophies behind agile and how they can be the catalyst for improvement:
Minimum viable product – breaking things to manageable pieces is such a no brainer. By piece-mealing a often challenging and complex work into chunks not only improve workability, but more importantly reduce the fear and uncertainty associated with making the first step. Having something to celebrate also creates a sense of achievement, no matter how small, that boosts morale and teamwork.
- Feedback loops
Having key stakeholders continuously engaged is the best insurance for last minute surprises – and nobody likes surprises. Taking stakeholders along the journey also exposes them to not just the achievements but challenges faced so they understand where the time, effort and money were spent on. With a shared goal toward success, feedbacks identify all those negatives such as progress that is off track, group think, inaccurate or unrealistic requirements, poor quality delivery etc.
Agile teams do this in regular meetings called retrospectives. These meetings happen regularly (usually every 2 weeks) and the team is encouraged to talk candidly about their work and how things are going on the team. Positive things are reinforced, negative issues are discussed openly, and ideas for changes are considered and planned.
Agile teams are famous for their ‘walls’. Using a physical task board makes your team’s work more visible. Whilst tough to start this at first, creating columns for things to do, work in progress, and completed tasks can do wonders for your team’s communication and collaboration on projects. It is simple but there is something physiologically satisfying about moving a task across the board.
Hands up if you intuitively think about your work in terms of output. How many features did we release? How many emails, phone calls, etc. did we make? How many ticks of approvals achieved? Us humans think about our work in terms of output because it is easy to measure (also we were told to set these measures up front, so we can call our goals ‘measurable’), but it’s not what really matters. What matters is the impact or outcome of our work – the value it creates. Maximizing the outcomes is a fundamental principle of agile and I feel it’s the most powerful.
Opposite to value is waste. One of the agile principles is around the idea of simplicity. Is the team empowered to question the value of a piece of work? Be willing to ask if and why something must be done If it is no longer valuable, be willing to see what happens if you stop doing it. Look for things that are wasteful and eliminate them. This will free you and your team up to focus on the things that drive outcomes – the things that add value.
- Change is constant
Eisenhower once said “Plans are worthless, once the first shot is fired, but planning is still essential” we live in a world that sees information or circumstances change at a speed never seen before. Assisted by technology, information penetrates fast and the power is squarely in the hands of consumers now. Be very cautious about making detailed long term plans that are costly to change. Getting into the rhythm and embrace changes and be agile about changing directions, requirements, deliverables, in fact, Everything.
6. Self organsing teams
Spotify uses the principle that the ‘culture is the sum of everyone’s values and behaviours’. Thoroughbred agile lives only in an environment of empowerment and trust. I personally think there is no better way than letting the team self-organise to demonstrate the company’s commitment to empowerment and trust. People with intrinsic motivation are more committed, outcome driven, push to limited and generally happier. Tell them the problem at hand and don’t tell people how to do things, articulate the problem, create a facilitating environment and let them surprise you with their results.
In all, these above principles and their perceived benefits I believe transcend software development projects. Be it traditional product development, BAU operations management, business improvement, incident management and problem solving, adopting some or all of these principles could change the way it sued to be and potentially deliver massive benefits with little costs.
What is your experience with agile in non IT project?