Agile has officially earned buzzword status. Known as a management methodology, numerous organizations as of late have attempted (successfully or unsuccessfully) to transform their existing organizational structure to become agile. Adopting an agile transformation strategy promises greater customer satisfaction, faster time to market, higher revenue growth, lower costs, and a more engaged workforce. However, an organization can not simply “go” agile overnight, in-fact going agile entails a minimum five to 10-year plan that overtime transforms an organization’s mindset, invokes cultural change, and involves the implementation of dedicated resources across the board. For many organizations, failure to fully transform into an agile organization is due to a lack of knowledge on the methodology itself, what it is and what it entails, and an understanding that it may not be appropriate for each business model.
This article will address the gap in understanding and act as a primer on developing an agile transformation strategy, specifically providing a high-level overview of what agile is and how it works.
Agile is more than just a methodology; it’s a mindset.
Back in 2001, a group of experts and colleagues put together what they called the Agile Manifesto, which outlines a set of principles they felt would allow developers to deliver software more efficiently and with higher customer satisfaction. At its core, the manifesto aimed to shift how software development was created to focus more on the customer. Today, agile follows the same principles but has broadened its reach to affect not only software development but different areas and departments within a business. Agile is more than just a methodology; it’s a mindset.
Organizations transitioning to this mindset will notice a drastic difference from the traditional structural principles that shaped their current business. Conventional management methods like waterfall, for example, follow a top-down hierarchy where decisions come from the highest authority and flow down to the employees. This method operates through linear planning and control to capture value for shareholders and is often rigid and slow. In contrast, the agile mindset focuses on iterative decision-making, where requirements and solutions develop through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams. These teams operate in rapid learning and fast-decision cycles known as sprints.
Where waterfall delivers a final product at the very end of a project, agile methodologies break that same project up into small increments, producing a deliverable at each stage as the project progresses, delivering instant value to the customer.
To summarize, agile is a mindset that moves away from the principles of top-down management and emphasizes the need for collaboration amongst teams to deliver value while making adjustments and improvements as needed continuously. Ultimately this reduces the risk that comes with providing a final product at the end of a long production period that may be over budget and not what the customer expected.
Before we go any further into creating an agile transformation strategy and how agile works within organizations, some essential terms should be familiar to you:
The customer is at the core of everything an organization does. For an agile transformation strategy to work effectively, teams must have a clear understanding of the customer, what problem to solve, and what matters to the customer. In a traditional waterfall organization, communication between the customer and the individuals executing the work is often non-existent, with the employees receiving direction from higher-ups instead of directly from the ones that ordered the work in the first place. Waterfall methods can sometimes lower the possibility of delivering a product that truly satisfies the customer. It is for this reason that agile emphasizes the importance of the customer.
With agile, valuing interactions between people (customer and the lead developer, for example, or with members of a team) is prioritized over standardized processes. If a project is driven solely by process and documentation, the team is less responsive to change and less likely to meet customer needs. Again, a people-first approach all comes back to the first principle of agile; everything comes back to the customer and how to deliver the right solutions for them. Communication is a great example to see the difference between valuing interaction over process and how this helps the customer. In the case of individuals, communication happens when a need arises. When it comes to process, communication is scheduled and requires specific content. Agile relies less on checking a box off a list and instead focuses on interacting when necessary.
The agile process centers around what is known as sprints. These quick development or production phases allow an organization to produce a deliverable at the end of each sprint. Short sprints (typically two weeks) allow teams to receive continuous feedback from the customer on what they delivered. Agile emphasizes the need to take this feedback and integrate that learning into the next sprint. With Agile, the shortness of a sprint allows for priorities to quickly shift from iteration to iteration and for new features to be added as needed. Agile’s view is that changes always improve a project and provide additional value.
The purpose behind agile is to streamline workflows to allow for the maximum output of high-value products. In a traditional waterfall environment, before production begins a significant amount of time and resources are dedicated to properly documenting technical specifications, technical requirements, design documents, test plans, and approvals, causing long delays. While agile does not eliminate this completely, the agile process streamlines and in some cases automates this process to give a developer enough information to begin working on a project.
While there are a variety of frameworks and manifestations of agile, an organization can implement, for an agile transformation strategy to work effectively, the whole business must be operating in an agile manner. To be successfully agile, an organization can not just pick a handful of aspects of the process it likes. To be genuinely agile, an organization must approach it holistically and bring the entire organization on the journey. Below we break down how the agile process typically functions within the Scrum framework.
Within each team of an agile organization, each specific member is assigned a different task or position. While they may be in charge of one specific thing, it is still vital for them to collaborate with other teams and team members to accomplish a final goal. A simple way to picture this is to compare members of the agile team to workers in a restaurant kitchen. Each member of the kitchen staff prepares different aspects of the dish separately that later come together to complete a full meal. Customers (internal or external) will provide these teams with their user stories outlining the basic requirements for a project. The agile teams then take the user stories and figure out how to develop these products. Together the scrum master, product owner, and development team organize these requirements into groups so they can prioritize which stages of a project need to be completed first. These groups are called sprints, and typically last two weeks. It is during this sprint that the team works on a specific task that needs to be completed in time for the next sprint. At the end of each sprint, teams hold a retrospective meeting where they reflect on lessons learned and what improvements can be made based on a continuous flow of feedback from stakeholders and product managers. These changes are then implemented as they go. Sprints continue until the final product is completed.
VersionOne’s 13th Annual State of Agile Report shows that 97 percent of respondents surveyed said that their organization practices agile to some degree, with 95 percent saying they have realized success from agile projects. However, as mentioned earlier, if an organization wants to become agile, they can not pick and choose what aspects of the mindset they want to implement and discard the others. To truly experience the benefits of agile, an organization has to be prepared to dedicate 100 percent of their time and resources to the transformation. However, this can not happen if an organization doesn’t have a thorough understanding of what this mindset is and how it functions. Translating this information across an entire organization is key to a successful transformation and gaining insight into whether agile is even the proper mindset for their organization. There is no benefit in an organization “going” agile for the sake of going agile.