Agile February 08, 2017

Say agile one more time

Christophe Rosseel

Client Services Director

The agile movement promises a more productive, more innovative and a more liveable workplace. Big claims like that tend to generate a lot of buzz, making it difficult to separate the hype from the reality. Yet in this series of blog posts we want to do just that. We found that agile, when done right, is an excellent way to stay ahead in today’s turbulent marketplace and we want to spread the gospel.

We’ll look at agile from our own perspective of a digital product studio, focusing on real-life problems. What’s the best way to transition to agile? How can agile work in a client – supplier relationship? How do you write an agile contract? How do things like design thinking and devops fit into the agile picture?

Christophe kicks off the series by looking at the state of agile in 2017. He also asks, and answers, the question only few dare to ask: Can you explain agile to me like I'm 6 years old?

In 2001, 17 middle-aged nerds gathered in a conference room in Snowbird, Utah. They shared some avant-garde beliefs about software development and wanted to discuss lightweight development methods. What emerged was the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the foundation of a movement that would rock the world of software to its core.

Fast forward 16 years and the Agile movement is no longer constrained to software development. Slowly but surely it is spreading to all sorts of industries where it is transforming the way people work at all levels of organization. This statement was posited not by me, but by the bastion of general management, Harvard Business Review, in its 2016 article; Embracing Agile.

With high praise like that, you’d think that agile as a development methodology would go unchallenged, at least in the tech industry. That’s not the case. There are 2 significant problems with agile:

It doesn't really mean anything, anymore

Actually, it has come to mean too many things. Rather than a single software development methodology, agile can now best be described as a mindset, fanning out into dozens of different methodologies, frameworks and practices. The below visual illustrates how cluttered the agile landscape has become.

The combination of hype and fragmentation has made the agile community vulnerable. Less-than-reputable vendors and consultants started taking advantage of the confusion to hawk all sorts of solutions and services, “so your company can be agile, too!”. A lot of people seem to forget that agile is a means, not an end….

Going agile is a change of course of existential proportions

Imagine taking a manager from the eighties and inviting him in an agile organization of today. It’s hard to overstate how foreign he would feel. Managers can’t tell people what to do? This big project is entrusted to that small team? The supplier won’t commit on scope X by date Y? The future is crazy!

Even today, when you ask traditional managers what it means to be agile, most of them will be able to throw around some of its artifacts. They’ll say things like “work in iterations”, “do daily standup meetings”, etc… Very often their knowledge is second hand, and they don’t really understand the values behind agile. As a consequence, they continue to manage in ways that run counter to agile principles and they won’t see the payoff promised by “working agile”.

Agile is harder to understand than would seem on the surface. A lot of conventional managers have trouble getting their head around the fact that agile is not just a methodology that can be implemented in an organization’s current context… This is because agile challenges the very concept of a company as it has existed for the last century.

Not so long ago, all corporations were matrix organizations with rigid silo structures and top-down, command-and-control management. Agile org’s are fundamentally different; they favor self-management and self-organization by shifting more responsibilities to the teams that do the actual work. Spotify is probably the best-known example.

What is the upside if I manage to get agile right?

While its meaning has been subverted, it’s prone to abuse and it is hard to implement in a traditional corporation, agile is very much alive. In fact, it might just be the best-kept management secret on earth, with its usefulness extending well beyond development teams.

Agile evolved from software to the general domain when people discovered it’s the only method that can cope with continuous change, which is a given in today’s world – and not just in IT. As a rule, agile organizations prove that they are uniquely equipped to thrive in the 21st century’s fast-moving, uncertain and complex business environment.

Explain it to me like I'm a 6 year old

This may be blasphemy but the agile manifesto does sound a little dated. It wouldn’t be my go-to resource if I had to teach agile to a child. All the principles still apply but I’d summarize them as follows:

  • Early & continuous delivery: create value and get it into the customer’s hands as soon as possible.
  • There can be no agile without this simple feedback loop: Do. Learn. Adjust. Repeat.
  • Embrace change, that’s what the feedback loop is all about.
  • Empower the people that do the work. Give them control over how they organize themselves and give them authority over the product they’re building.
  • Minimize waste. In all possible ways.
  • The best work comes from small, cross-functional teams. Make sure that the team has all the people they need to carry a product to the finish line (but no more).

Of course, reality is always messier than a nicely bulleted list of principles but this really is the best place to start if you want to understand agile.

So how can I do agile right? 

The scope of this question is very ambitious, but in the agile spirit, we’ll try to tackle the minimum viable response in this series.

We’ll tell you about our journey into the wondrous world of agile, the resistance we’ve had to overcome and the lessons we learned. Hopefully organizations in an earlier stage of the transition can learn something from it.

In the next part of our series, Jan will look at agile from a business development perspective. If you’ve ever wondered how to structure agile development, an inherently fluid concept, into a rigid agreement, you’ll want to stay tuned.