Agile is a globally recognised term for a set of methods and practices which originally emerged in the tech sector to improve the development of software.
While its still primarily adopted within tech companies as a model for building software solutions. It has now been more widely accepted as an option for modern business development and management.
Being Agile draws upon agile and wider modern management methods such as Lean, Kanban, and Coaching to help organisations and their teams create a mindset and mix for supporting their growth, performance and well-being.
The Origin of Agile has evolved within the software sector to support project management, product development, time management, quality improvement and team performance. The agile methodology provides a change and decision support structure and tool kit, at its most simple it provides a dynamic to do list for its users.
Agile software development is a group of software development methods in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement and encourages rapid and flexible response to change. (Agile software development – Wikipedia, 2014)
Agile originated in the tech sector as an approach to deal with large projects that could not be fully defined up front and were subject to change.
Traditional ‘big upfront planning’ approaches were causing projects to fail, leading to follow projects to amend issues, and huge scope creep and costs, sometimes even leading to complete product failure.
For example, a software company employed to build software for an external client would initially work with the client to pin them down to the absolute detail of the project before work commenced, ‘big upfront planning’. A key issue though was often that the client didn’t know exactly what they wanted, or needed.
Once requirements were fully defined the software team would then design and build the system, returning to the client with the complete product some time later.
The issue with this approach is that in the 6-12 months the team took to build the software the clients business has changed, new customers, products, services, ways of working, often referred to as ‘scope creep’ The business environment is continually changing, evolving and developing. So when delivered the product is 6-12 months out of date, not ‘fit for purpose’ and an extensive follow up project is needed to correct and amend the software.
A second issue then arises if the software has not been written in a way that is easily changed, which may mean that more work is needed and other issues emerge from the change due to knock-on effects.
So while the software companies were delivering to contract the systems they defined at the beginning of the project, the customer was dis-satisfied because the system didn’t take into account changes to the business, and therefore was not seen as fit for purpose solution, plus then additional time and budget needed to put it right.
When we are operating in environments that are subject to change and uncertainty, in complex or chaotic scenarios, this brings about a number of challenges, for projects, for teams, organisations, to their ways or working.
Many organisations during the pandemic have had to pivot and change their businesses, from mature and well-defined business processes, simple development and delivery of products and services, into complex new scenarios, whether that’s new products or services, new delivery models, or new markets, existing processes and ways of working are no longer fit for purpose, or no longer work for new products or ways of working.
Teams working in changing and uncertain environments often face these common challenges:
Yes! These are not challenges just software teams face, these are challenges all teams and types of business face, we are all subject to change and uncertainty.
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Agile in business is a mindset along side a suite of methodologies and tools to help organisations and their teams to work flexibly and adapt and improve as things change.
Agile helps to provide a framework for teams to work to, while allowing them to think for themselves, adapt and improve ways of working as needed and self organise and manage their work and responsibilities.
Agile is an adaptive and iterative method for managing work. Teams deliver work in timeboxes, known as sprints. Think of breaking a marathon (project) into lots of short sprints (timeboxes). Teams plan their sprints, based on feed-in from the customer on priorities and the people and resources available, run the sprint of work, and then at the end reflect and review on progress, release work in progress for feedback, learn and adjust the plan and the backlog of work accordingly, and plan their next sprint of work.
Working in this way means that a project doesn’t have to be ‘big upfront planned’, which is often difficult when its the first time its been done. It means we can gain feedback and learning throughout the project and improve as we understand what we are doing, and the options of how we can do it better.
There are various methods, tools, practices, concepts and ideas that sit under the umbrella of ‘agile’, being agile, or agility within a business comes from drawing from this mix to create a style of agile that suits their organisation, and continuously improving and adapting it as the business grows, evolves and changes.
The ‘Spotify Model’ is a well known style of agile created by the Spotify organisation, it is unique to the organisation, its business model and its products. Their agile model is continuously adapting and evolving with the organisation and its products and services. You couldn’t take this model and apply it in another business with success. Each organisation needs its own style of agile to complement its own business model, teams and products.
Every organisations operating model is unique, and therefore every organisations style of agile is unique.
Test your mindset and apply the method in this quick 30 minute introduction to agile
Agile is an adaptive rather than a predictive approach, particularly useful when we don’t know exactly what we want to do, or how we are going to do it, so it is impossible to create an upfront plan.
Agile is an iterative method, rather than a project be one long marathon, agile splits project into lots of shorter timeboxed sprint’s of work, usually between 1 and 4 weeks long. Each sprint the team plan their sprint of work, track their progress, and then at the end of the sprint, reflect and review so that learning and understanding gained can be fed into the next sprint planning session, and provide a gauge for overall project progress.
Agile puts the writing on the wall. Agile makes things visible. So much of work is ‘virtual’ and knowledge based it is not tangible, and therefore this makes it difficult to visualise a solution, or see its parts and progress. Agile helps turn intangible knowledge tasks into tangible ‘cards’ that represent them. By visualising the work it then helps teams, customers, suppliers and partners to map the solution, break it into manageable chucks, identify areas of most value, see flow, progress, blocks, interruptions and distractions, organise and manage work.
Agile enables collaboration – agile is an enabler for teams to work collectively. Boards enable teams to visualise activities and work on them collectively, enabling them to be more self-organising and managing, and work more cohesively as a team. Agile is brilliant for enabling conversation with customers, providing visibility, re-assurance and channels to engage and evolve their ideas, allowing them to develop, grow and refine their plans based on their experiences of early working solutions.
Agile helps improve and sustain our mental well-being. Using agile methods helps to gain a real time picture of reality, how much can be achieved, and therefore create a better and more sustainable pace. Working in sprints helps teams manage the short term as well as plan for the longer term. It helps uncover issues, challenges and problems that can be improved to help create an environment where the team have the right environment, skills and resources and are trusted to get the job done. Agile helps us celebrate success and review and retune regularly, embracing an experiential and learning approach to challenges and opportunities.
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Agile is an amazing suite of methods and tools. Agile now encompasses a wealth of methods, concepts, practices and tools to help teams and businesses to keep pace, maintain a competitive edge and manage change and uncertainty. Methods help both run the business and change and improve the business. Organisations and teams are able to build their own unique mix of agile methods and practices that work best for their business model, teams and customers.
Agile comes in many forms, shapes and sizes in terms of principles, concepts, practices, methods, tools and more, a pick and mix of styles and approaches for different scenarios, tools aimed to help you to uncover challenges, risks and opportunities, and improve your agility.
Agile has become an umbrella term for a huge range of methods, concepts, tools, and approaches that can be used in environments of change and uncertainty.
This graphic aims to map many of those onto a tube style map, which works well to show you an overwhelming picture of the choices available! And the fact that it is overwhelming shows what a broad array of styles and approaches there are for ‘doing agile’. It is in effect, a pick and mix of concepts, practices, methods and tools, all aimed at helping us to navigate the new and unknown, to embrace change and manage uncertainty.
I would add some things to this map, and remove a couple too, the landscape for agile is constantly evolving, growing and changing. But it does provide a snapshot of some of the methods and tools that have emerged over the past 20 years in the tech sector and beyond under the agile umbrella. It gives us a selection box of the pick and mix of tools and methods we can use, adapt and evolve too for our own application and benefit.
While doing agile, using these methods and tools can certainly help to improve agility, without an agile mindset, they are simply tools, and indeed they can be used to counter-agility, as well as improve it if used badly.
More broadly agile methods have evolved to support leadership and culture, innovation and growth, change and improvement. Adopted across the business, in business operations from marketing to finance, and in product development, from design to delivery.
Agile is well suited to knowledge based organisations, where the key value and asset of the organisation is its people and talent. Many previous management approaches are based on organisation who’s value and focus is on their raw materials, machinery or low skill labour. In fact some more traditional business management methods can be traced back to work houses and the poor working conditions seen in the industrial revolution.
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The agile manifesto helps us to understand, what is agile, as a set of values and beliefs.
This version of the manifesto has been adapted from the original software manifesto to be more inclusive to business management more broadly
Continuously improving our ways of working for growth, performance and well-being.
In being agile we value..
While our values on the right are important, we value those on the left MORE!
update Nov 22
An agile approach helps us to create working solutions quickly even if we cannot fully define a product/project upfront, and enable us to build in evolving requirements as they emerge, and make improvements to our original plans as we go and better options emerge or become available or viable.
Agile helps us to deal with ‘scope creep’ – the emergence on new or changed requirements throughout a project and how to build solutions that are built to change and evolve. A solution that is fit for purpose, and can be changed and developed to meet new requirements.
What does being agile mean to you? What is the definition of agile? Perhaps a word or two may spring to mind, here’s a mind map of some of the words collated from my workshops.
Astute, Slick, Responsive, Rapid, Limber, Dextrous, Alert, Fluid, Regular, Trim, Co-ordinated, Supple, Rhythm, Active, Buoyant, Prompt, Bend, Lightness, Swift, Flexible, Balanced, No Waste, Quick, Lean, Nimble, Support, Brave, Good timing, Mentally quick, Ease of Movement, Efficient, Fast, Accurate, Aware, Focus, Lively, Fit, Streamline.
Perhaps you picture an agile person, thing or situation. A gymnast, a rock climber, a race horse, a racing yacht, lifeboats, a surgeon in their operating theatre, the all blacks rugby team and a Formula 1 pit stop team, all examples others have shared in my workshops.
The Oxford English dictionary defines agile in a number of ways:
Definition of agile, adj.
Able to move (esp. to climb or manoeuvre) quickly and easily; nimble, dexterous.
Of a person, the mind, etc.: able to think, understand, and react quickly; alert, astute, quick-witted; (also) characterized by quick-wittedness.
Business. Of a company, business activity, product, etc.: able to change or be changed rapidly in response to customer needs and market forces; adaptable, flexible, responsive.
Oxford English Dictionary
Reading these definitions we can see there are a number of definitions of these words depending on the context in which they are used. There are equally numerous ways in which you can apply and adopt agile and lean behaviour.
Defining agile is a great way to gain clarity over what we mean when we say we want to ‘be agile’ or ‘do agile’, what outcome are we looking for, what is the purpose and goal of ‘being agile’.
“used for describing ways of planning and doing work in which it is understood that making changes as they are needed is an important part of the job”
Map out your own definition of agile with some sticky notes, what words, images, memories come to mind when you think of doing, or being agile?
Can you think of examples of where you or someone else was agile?
What are the traits of an agile organisation?
What are the signs someone, or something is not agile?
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Lean is a methodology that originated within the manufacturing sector to support mass production with an ability to continuously improve both the products and manufacturing processes. Lean emphasises a model which looks to take out cost, and add value in a business’ core activities. Agile draws on the objectives of reducing waste and that of promoting and prioritise activities that add value. Lean is incredibly valuable for refining and optimising flow, for delivering solutions repetitively efficiently and effectively.
Kanban is a Japanese word meaning sign board, within Agile is it used as a visual representation of work in progress. The method was developed by Toyota to maintain a high level of production as well as manage continuous improvement of products.
Kanban is demand driven in that work is produced on demand based on customer behaviour, and where possible just in time. Improvements are responded to quickly when demand for change is observed and integrated into production and delivery processes.
The use of Kanban within software development has been developed and adapted as a visual tool to help manage the delivery of software solutions and more broadly for teams such as technical support and maintenance.
Kanban is incredibly valuable when we need to be highly responsive in environments where there is a constant flow of inbound work and shifting priorities we need to respond to immediately.
Kanban is a method for managing knowledge work with an emphasis on just-in-time delivery while not overloading the team members. (Wikipedia – Kanban (development))
Coaching as a process is a person centred methodology which promotes a solution focused, goal orientated approach to personal and professional development. The method works to enable an individual to achieve greater state of self-awareness and of the environment and people around them. Agile coaching aims to empower the individual or team to become self managing and self organising in reaching their goals.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology research into the use of agile practices within a business suggests that high agility businesses generate 30% more profit and grow 37% faster than companies with low agility (PMI’s Pulse of the Profession – Organisational Agility).
Many are beginning to recognise that management methods being used in the technology sector, particularly in the software sector are 20 years ahead of traditional management techniques.
Legacies from the 80s and 90s industrial, low-skill, mass production, labour intensive businesses, which continue to be used despite significant changes to the business environment and work culture since.
Agile is particularly relevant in modern knowledge based businesses. For more traditional business models it equally provides value, giving new synergy and channels between lean factory floors and their customers, and creating cross function organisations linking them with sales, design, marketing and research teams.
For mature businesses it provides a real time window into what is actually happening versus what the policies and processes say, uncover challenges and opportunities, and embed continuous improvement into all areas of the business. For start ups and high growth businesses it provides a the visibility, foresight and collaboration needed for scaling and evolving business operations.
For those undertaking digital transformation programmes it offers an approach that allows for learning and iterative, evolutionary development of solutions, collaboration with technology suppliers, and early validation of solutions with customers and users.
Allowing teams to be agile increases their engagement and well-being, and enables them to better engage with customers, suppliers, partners and the market.
Agile is not the simple, cheap, easy solution, it is an approach that enables teams to create value adding quality solutions despite change, complexity and chaos. It is a people centred approach providing valuable and viable working solutions quickly that make our customers happy, and ensuring we sustain our performance and well-being as a business.
Traditional management tactics are unable to cope with rapid change needed to keep pace with global markets and emerging technologies. Plans are often out of date before they are completed, and by the time a product reaches the market the consumer has moved onto the next new innovation.
Being Agile provides a new approach to delivering success in today’s working environments, addressing growing issues.
Being Agile as a suite of solutions, is agile in its own right, it is continually evolving to embrace new solutions, adapt and evolve existing models, methods, concepts and tools.
Being Agile aims to help you find the right mix of agile that boosts your growth, performance and well-being.Agile WorkshopsStart Reading
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