Go Agile! Recommendations to implement agile methods and tips to overcome barriers

It’s all about innovation
Over the past 2 decades, the agile methodology has transformed software development by helping organisations to develop new software more efficiently. Agile software development organisations have excelled in their products’ success rates, decreased their time to market and enhanced the motivation and productivity of their teams. ‘Agile’ is more than a buzzword; it is key for organisations to accelerate their response to change and deliver high-quality products.

Multiple industries and functions could benefit from agile methodology to excel in their markets. By empowering self-managed, customer-centric and cross-functional teams, agile methodology increases innovation and accelerates profitable growth. Organisations constantly have to respond to market changes and customer needs in order to stay relevant to their customers. Not only do they need to innovate their products and services, but also their functional processes.

In this article, we take a closer look at what ‘agile’ means for your organisation and gives insight into how to start working agile today.

Working agile may be the key to increasing your organisation’s competitive advantage
If you are looking to improve your organisation’s productivity, time to market and customer/employee satisfaction, agile might be the way to go. Agile is most useful in dynamic and complex environments where innovation plays a key role in achieving success. If you wish to know whether the agile methodology is suitable for your organisation, ask yourself the following five basic questions:

  • Are your customer’s preferences always changing?
  • Do product specifications tend to change throughout the course of the development process?
  • Are your organisation’s challenges complex and is the scope unclear?
  • Is “time-to-market” significant for product or service success?
  • Is cross-functional collaboration an important element to boost product innovation and quality in your organisation?

If your answer is “yes” to any of the previous questions, then your organisation should consider working agile. Today’s markets tend to be volatile and unpredictable. Agile reduces risk and helps organisations to cope with market instability by improving product value and time to market.

The following recommendations can help you to make the best out of the agile methodology in your organisation:

  • Start by learning what agile is about and how it works.
    Agile is a completely different approach than the sequential waterfall development to which many managers and business executives are used. In the waterfall approach requirements and execution plans are created in the beginning of a project and passed sequentially from function to function. This approach is not suitable for rapid and unpredictable environments. Looking for a more flexible approach to product development in the IT industry, a group of software developers proposed new principles to guide the software development process (see table). The “Agile Manifesto” is the backbone of different agile techniques such as scrum, lean development, or Kanban.

Agile values and principles

Source: Rigby D. K., Sutherland J.m Takeushi, H. (2016, May). Embracing Agile. Harvard Business Review, 94(5), 41- 50.

By definition, “agile” is a term used to describe a general approach to software development. Agile methods focus on teamwork, regular deliveries of working products, close collaboration with customers and stakeholders, and the ability to respond to market changes fast. Scrum is the most used agile method. It consists of empowering a small and cross-functional team to solve a problem or achieve a goal. The infographic below depicts the actors and processes in scrum.

  • Start small and move up
    It is ideal if the entire organisation can work in an agile way. However, this may require massive efforts. Normally, companies start by incorporating agile at the IT department, which is usually more familiar with the principles. Next, extending to other departments, where the original practitioners (in IT) can act as coaches.
    Agile methods may be less valuable for routine operations like plant maintenance, accountancy or sales calls. However, it is important that the way of working is spread throughout all departments so that they do not run counter to agile principles and hinder success. Agile can be of significant value for departments close to new product development, such as marketing, supply-chain, strategic-planning, and resource allocation.
  • Leverage agile at the corporate level
    Executive roles could also benefit from working in agile teams. By working agile, managers and leaders can: learn from other disciples and people by working on cross-functional teams; get to know their customers first-hand by participating in customer sessions, and learn about common challenges the organisation is facing and the way to overcome them.
    Strategic management tasks can also be enriched by an agile approach. Senior executives can come together as an agile team and prioritise management activities. They can pay close attention to business’ most critical issues and try to eliminate the less value-adding activities such as unnecessary reports. They can accelerate their decision-making process with stand-up meetings that consider the deliveries of the other scrum teams. Their activities can become clearer to the rest of the organisation by sharing their progress on common boards visible to everybody.

Agile often requires organisational change
Starting to work agile also has attention points. It often requires organisational change and commitment of different business units. Also, there will be some adjustment time necessary. In order to break down the barriers that may be keeping your organisation from getting the best out of agile, here are some useful tips:

  • Help team members to simultaneously collaborate with other disciplines
    The first step is to get everyone on the same page. Management should see the big picture and make sure that all departments and teams understand the organisation’s priorities. It is also important to focus on building and empowering cross-functional teams. This does not necessarily require a new organisational structure, mainly learning to collaborate simultaneously with other disciplines and business units.
  • Listen to your teams and increase their motivation and commitment
    Listen to what teams are saying and unveil barriers that are keeping them from working more effectively. Make use of agile coaches that can help teams rethink and change the way they go about the challenges they face.
    Focus more on teams and less on individuals. Design your reward system in such a way that it recompenses team’s outcomes more than individual work. Weigh business outcome (such as customer satisfaction and team happiness) higher than team utilisation (i.e. how busy people are).
  • Guide your team members instead of commanding employees
    Lead with questions. Challenge approaches. Avoid giving orders. These simple actions can help teams to work together towards goals and challenges, instead of performing imposed tasks. Give them room to innovate and to be creative. Appoint a single owner for initiatives, but make clear that the team is responsible for the end result.

An agile approach can have a significant impact on the way organisations respond to change and the speed at which they develop (new) products. It is also particularly relevant in dynamic markets and in industries where the customer needs are constantly changing. However, its implementation is not one-size fits all. It requires change and commitment at different organisational levels.

This article was written by our former colleague Kelly Morales. Kelly worked as a consultant, specialised in the application of customer insights in the design, development and innovation of online customer journeys. With a creative mindset and design-thinking skills, she translated customer needs and behaviours into new products and services of companies from finance to automotive. She helped organisations to build a more direct and personal relationship with their customers. We wish Kelly all the best in her new adventures. Kelly used to cooperate with Marjan van de Wetering, an agile expert within The Next Organization.

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