Are you Agile, or is your behavior Agile?
By Arie Van Bennekum
We live in a world that changes more rapidly and more frequently. So much so, that we can’t even keep up. Technology and organizations need to assume an adaptive state – they need to be flexible. How? Through Agile working. Agile working isn’t new. Ever since the Agile Manifesto was drafted in 2001, Agile working has become ubiquitous in project- and process management. To my great satisfaction – I might add.
Agile working refers to the ability to react fast and meaningful to developments within your organization. There are numerous examples of important companies and startups that have implemented Agile working. An Agile way of working allowed them to outplay huge organizations. Take, for example, Amazon, Alibaba and Whatsapp. Increasingly, corporations have adopted Agile working in response to this ever-changing global market – and the necessity to adapt accordingly – and in order to outmaneuver competition. Agile is alive and kicking. But what, exactly, ís Agile working? Why is the Agile shift crucial to companies, managers, and marketing professionals? And why now, more than ever? What are the Agile trends? And what are the most common pitfalls? A fresh look on today’s and tomorrow’s Agile working.
Agile: a mindset
Thinking clearly and logically, partnership, optimizing interaction, and discouraging bureaucracy in order to be more successful. That is the principle of Agile working. Agile is a concept for interaction, not a method. It can best be explained by answering two questions: 1. How does one do it, and 2. what are its merits? Agile working has the potential to increase the speed and value of the company’s products and improves the internal structure of the company as a whole. This is achieved by transforming the traditional, sequential production- or development process into a process in which everyone is involved. This implies continuous flow of communication, preferably face-to-face, that keeps everyone involved in all the projects. Another important aspect is the elimination of sequential steps that involve the use of documents, transfers, and time-consuming amendment procedures. The traditional sequential process – in which each step often consists of one occupational group per step – has two very important disadvantages:
- 1. Delay, because sequential steps are documented and transferred and this doesn’t add value to the product.
- 2. Risks, because the transmission of information has the unavoidable byproduct of interpretation and assumption, which leads tot error. This, in turn, leads to time-consuming amendment procedures.
Agile working means retrieving information from direct sources. It also offers the possibility to incorporate new developments in the process, since all stakeholders have progressive insight and provide periodic advice. The team is not held back by the stakeholders that aim to impose certain changes – they have no decisive influence. This way, delay caused by redundant bureaucratic processes, is eliminated.
Agile, as the word implies, arose from the need for faster, more nimble growth.
It all started with software development. There, Agile stealthily made its way into the production- and development establishment, with small teams creating great software at great speed as a result. However, this mindset is not only applicable to software processes and I think that not all organizations that have adopted Agile, have adopted it comprehensively.
From software to full delivery
Pioneers have already explored ideas for an alternative way of working a few decades ago. SCRUM, DSDM, Extreme Programming, Adaptive Software Development, Crystal , Feature-driven development, Pragmatic Programming, and so on – all methods developed independently between 1980 and 1999, and based on expert experience. They all share two common treats: the aim to diminish bureaucracy and a focus on valuable deliverables. In 2001, 17 representatives of these methodes combined their ideas for optimizing the quality and especially the speed of their output. The result: the publication of the so-called Agile Manifesto. It contains the definition of the Agile way of working that we know today.
To date, all values and principles remain appropriate – and certainly not only in the IT sector. Especially to teams that have no relation to software whatsoever, Agile working is paramount. However, for such teams, Agile working is not the norm. This is odd. Replace the word ‘software’ in the Manifesto by ‘product solution’ and you have the key to full delivery.
What’s going on right now?
Agile is widely accepted as thé way to be able to anticipate today’s fast-paced developments. ‘Agile makes you future proof.’ That is essential nowadays. Unable, as an organization, to react to changes in the market? Your competition will, and you will find yourself fighting an uphill battle.
On the other hand, we also see that, for some people, the Agile concept is difficult to grasp. Accordingly, the transition to Agile working costs time. This is precisely where difficulties arise. Being Agile is not the same as behaving Agile. Many organizations behave Agile. They carry out the so-called Agile rituals, but they cannot accept the underlying principle. The paradigm of the traditional way of working is blocking their road to success. Old habits die hard: whole archives of documents are retained and people are involved in merely one occupation.
With Agile, there is always room for best practices. In fact, best practices are part of Agile’s origin story. If your organization cannot be seen as a ‘best practice’ then this doesn’t mean that the whole project should be called off and you should go straight back to the traditional way of working. This is something that we see very often. Or, for instance, Agile coaches who, with a straight face, declare that they themselves do not have to work Agile. It is precisely when a “yes-but” appears that you know an old paradigm has surfaced. These need to be replaced in the process of becoming Agile, which costs time. Obviously, paradigms are deep-rooted, and determines your reflexive behavior (for example, when in a stressful situation). Whenever something goes wrong – something that is bound to happen when you’re learning and developing – your reflexes determine your reactions and, before you know it, you are back to square one.
Often, Agile working is not used as intended. Why is it so hard?
Organizations often focus on the project itself, instead of focussing on the ultimate goal. Relapsing into the mindset of the old paradigm is the most common pitfall. Some of the most important characteristics of the old paradigm:1. “Rules”
The most important problem is that, in the end, people tend to abide by the ancient rules. People often have the (sometimes erroneous) idea that some administrative actions are mandatory. But, when this idea is explored more thoroughly, it appears that these ideas, these obligations, are self-imposed. An excellent illustration of this phenomenon is the story that is known as the Five Monkeys Experiment (which is based on a more nuanced experiment, but the point of the story is clear enough).
2. Elaborate documents
Another pitfall is the tendency of people to seek refuge in big piles of paperwork. Reports and documentation make projects more complicated than necessary. MS Word is not going to help you. Documents are transient by nature, and their value is limited. It should be about sharing information, and making documents available as soon as possible. ‘It is a common myth that Agile means non-documentation.’ We document alright, but in an entirely different way.
The main principle is: visualize. Create information radiators and hang them on the wall. This way (at least, if you keep it up to date), you always have all the details you need at hand. Also, your team also contributes to this information, which means that they always know what was meant and interpretation is limited – which is one of the most important problems for deliverables. Have an urge to preserve the past? Document it in pictures, and you can always go back to any point in time.
Tip: Avoid pull information (prose that needs to be retrieved from some place or other) and use push information (up-to-date information that is available at any time, and to anyone, without an elaborate search preceding it). This way, complexity and the need for documentation and reporting is reduced. The result: it’s easier to work faster and more meticulously.
3. Everything is important
Another form of destructive behavior for Agile is breaking one’s attention span. Teams are often disturbed by matters that are deemed important by management or by others. Context switching is human capacity killer no. 1. Experience shows that, 9 out of 10 times, the disturbance is unnecessary because the matter at hand can wait. It’s better to wait for the next part in the Agile ritual and then discuss it. Is it really a crisis? Then consult the team’s facilitator, the Scrum master, and don’t bother the whole team with it. Retrieving the attention span costs time – and time is money.
Value: Focus is a key element of Agile. That, by itself, is a huge accelerator.
4. Agile is for software exclusively
Organizations and departments tend to feel special. However, no matter the professional area, there are always a few basic elements in their way of working. This means that there is a basic and universal application of Agile (something that has been proven for some years now). This enables complete delivery of new products and whole organizations to work Agile – from the HR-department to product innovation.
Note: Declaring Agile to be ‘for others’ might be the most dangerous pitfall. Everything can be done Agile.
5. External factors
There are also external factors that can hamper the Agile way of working. It is important, as an Agile company, that other partners also have that Agile mindset. Cooperating with suppliers can be very vexing if they are unable to keep up with your fast-paced deliveries. Partners can also force organizations to produce a lot of documents and reports. Tender procedures hardly ever come without huge amounts of paperwork.
Food for thought: Including Agile working into your considerations when choosing partners is essential to a comprehensive implementations of Agile working.
Where are we headed?
Many companies nowadays realize that the old way of working is dead. Thank god! Response time must go up and this must happen in all part of the process. Everyone needs to be faster, not solely the implementation of technology. This is an important pitfall. And thus, HR and procurement need to be Agile, too.
The Agile mindset is most effective as a full delivery service, as corporate Agile. People have the tendency to assume that, when the IT-team is Agile, the whole organization is so too. For example, in producing a golf watch, the first step is the idea, and then tech. But the watch also needs to be developed, marketed, and a manual should be written. And, a backoffice for service and support should be set up (etc.). If the only Agile team is the development team, the organization will consistently run into the same problems over and over again. The whole organization should be Agile: full delivery.
There is no general format for Agile.
The objective is to enhance speed and business- and internal value. Nowadays, ailing projects don’t stand a chance. People often ask when the Agile transformation is finished. You might say that, as soon as you have implemented continuous learning, continuous improvement, and continuous innovation, you have come a long way.
Being an Agile organization means that the company is developing itself continuously. The Agile Manifesto lays out the ground work. In every step of the way, you should pause and reflect: “am I retorting to an old paradigm or do I follow the Agile principles in order to maximize its benefits?” The organization itself should stay active and continue to experiment. This also means that, sometimes, things do not work, and that these mistakes should be permitted. One can not learn without making mistakes every now and then. Agile practices can be implemented anywhere. Explore the Agile concept to figure out what it could do for your organization. There is always more than you think. ‘Behaving Agile’ will kill your organization. Being Agile will make your organization future proof.
Examples of the right Agile mindset.
Companies that focus on value and that aren’t sidelined by rapid developments, technology, or other obstacles, are companies that have the right Agile mindset. Remember Wehkamp’s big fat catalogue? Wehkamp has boldly adapted its businessmodel and platform, which enabled them to be where they are now: a big player in their professional domain. A domain in which old competitors have vanished almost completely. But also utility company Delta Retail (nowadays known as Delta Comfort) has experienced it most successful years ever since they implemented Agile.
Adapt or tag along?
In sum: Agile is thé way of working, but it is also still developing.
Of course, focus and trust is still paramount when implementing innovation. Proper technology enables you to go extremely far with Agile. The sky is the limit. However, having the right mindset is the very foundation here: are you Agile or are you behaving Agile? Are you Agile? Then you know how to let your company grow. Are you behaving Agile? Then the risks are immense.
To stay ahead of your competition in this fast-pacing world, you have to dare to be Agile. That demands courage. Agile experts can help you turn your organization, your collages, and your partners around.