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The Why, What and How of Agile

July 14, 2022

Agile methods have improved software development, innovation, and speed to market for almost three decades. Now, they are expanding into new industries, bringing with them values and practices that stand in radical opposition to traditional Taylorism and other command-and-control, mechanistic management styles.

The agile approach is not an extension of old ways of thinking. Instead, it is an all-new way of thinking. It pushes people outside their silos and propels them into self-managed, cross-functional teams. It champions iteration, conversation, and customer-centricity while empowering employees and enhancing workplace morale and satisfaction.

However, the rewards of Agile don’t come to those who implement practices with an old-school mindset. Despite good intentions, leaders may continue to manage in ways that hinder agile teams. They may spread their talent too thinly, undermine team decisions, and introduce time-consuming control and review processes.

True success demands a seismic shift in mindset, and that journey begins with a thorough understanding of the what, why, and how of Agile.

What Is Agile?

Agile is, fundamentally, a project management approach that enables work to get done in uncertain environments. But, to fully appreciate the ‘what,’ we have to travel back in time to 1911 when American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor published a monograph titled The Principles of Scientific Management. In it, he advocated for the use of the scientific method to analyze production processes, eliminate flaws, and ultimately increase labour productivity.

According to Taylor, workplace managers are responsible for developing efficient production systems. To summarize his approach, Taylor outlined the following four principles:

  • Choose production methods using science, not a ‘rule of thumb.’ Individuals do not have the freedom to leverage their own ‘rules of thumb’ to complete a task. Instead, leaders should rely on ‘science’ to reveal the single best way to do the job, and all employees must work accordingly.
  • Leaders assign workers tasks based on their capabilities. Workers specialize in fewer areas and are trained to work as efficiently as possible.
  • Leaders closely monitor work performance. Assessing workers' productivity and providing further instruction are the best ways to optimize processes for peak efficiency.
  • Managers and workers have distinct roles. Managers plan initiatives and train workers. Workers do as they were trained to do.

The four principles of Taylorism, as this methodology is now called, can be seen today in small businesses and large enterprises, militaries, and sports teams. It is deterministic. All events, including the actions of individuals, are caused by predictable external forces– not individual will or chance – meaning outcomes can be forecast with accuracy.

In contrast, the agile paradigm is probabilistic, where the element of randomness is acknowledged and accounted for. It is organic. People – including the broader ecosystem of interactions between dependent parties – are involved in the success of delivery. Agile is about innovation and responding to complex and fast-changing environments. It is about challenging the status quo and following customer needs.

Guiding ideas and philosophies aside, the term Agile refers to several related methodologies, including:

  • Scrum, which focuses on creative teamwork, adaptation, and innovative problem-solving
  • Lean product development, which aims to get the right product to a customer more quickly
  • Kanban, which intends to decrease lead times and reduce the amount of work in progress

What Does Agile Promise?

The ‘what’ of Agile goes beyond its textbook definition – it’s about what it promises, too. The benefits of an agile management approach include the following:

  • Increased job satisfaction. According to one study, non-agile teams were eight times as likely to be “very dissatisfied” at work, and employees in agile teams were three times more likely to be “very satisfied.” Agile management approaches engage team members from across disciplines and enable self-management and autonomy. It paves the way for collaboration, building all-important trust. Another survey found that 87 percent of employees using Scrum believe it improves the quality of their work life.
  • Reduced waste. Redundant meetings are eliminated, repetitive preparation is kept to a minimum, and documentation is pared back. The goal is to spend more time working and achieving and less time ticking boxes.
  • Enhanced customer engagement. By collaborating with and responding to customers, customer satisfaction increases. Teams have visibility over priorities and expectations, allowing them to bring value-add products and features to market in shorter time periods, increasing the company’s competitiveness in rapidly evolving environments.
  • Less micromanagement. Teams are self-led, which gives executives and other senior employees time and resources to dedicate to high-value, growth-driving activities.

Why Agile?

Start with why. That’s what Simon Sinek urges in his TED Talk, and it’s how leaders inspire change. Why are you interested in evolving toward agile management? Why is this important now, at this stage of your company’s growth timeline?

Of course, no two organizations will share the same why. However, we are all operating at this specific point in history. None of us is immune to the drastic changes of the past few years, many of which have permanently transformed how we live, how we work, and what customers expect.

The problems we are facing are different, too – they are complex and unordered. While ordered problems are suited to being solved in a deterministic way, complex problems aren’t. In fact, they implode – for example, projects run way over time and budget. Further still, complex problems used to be rare but now they are more common. Agile offers a better way to navigate and solve these problems.

In addition, the old adage, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ is not a concept that works well anymore. Customers expect engagement. They want to be a part of the conversation, of the creative process.

The same can be said for employees. The idea of what makes a good workplace is changing, and the workforce has more power. They know they don’t need to commute to the office and make small talk by the watercooler. In one experiment, working from home resulted in a 13 percent increase in productivity, which equates to almost one extra day of output per week. In addition, it led to a 50 percent decrease in quit rates.

Our world is more fluid, and employees cannot be treated as fungible assets, nor consumers as people who will believe a product is brilliant just because you tell them so. Now, there is a discussion with our customers, partners, employees, and stakeholders. There are more ambiguities, and that is where a mechanistic approach – like deterministic Taylorism – becomes fragile and breaks down.

An agility mindset allows for interaction. Where Taylorism churns out products in carbon copies, Agile adapts, evolves, and responds. It opens the door to cooperation and communication with end-users. It cultivates creative problem-solving and genuine innovation. These abilities should inform your 'why.' They are critical if your organization is to successfully deliver its services or products in today’s increasingly complex environment.

How to Implement Agile

The ‘how’ of Agile is often misunderstood. It’s as much about practicalities as it is mindset and interpretation. For this reason, translating an approach letter-for-letter from one company to another – even one team to another – will not necessarily yield the same results.

Scrum is used at least five times as often as other approaches, so let’s explore its fundamentals before delving deeper into the importance of mindset.

The Fundamentals of Scrum

Generally, Scrum works like this:

  • To undertake an initiative or capitalize on an opportunity, a leader establishes a small dedicated team – typically between three and nine people working full-time. The team is comprised of talent from across the organization’s departments, ensuring all the skills needed to succeed are included in the team. The team is self-managed and accountable for all deliverables.
  • The team allocates an initiative owner (often called a Product Owner). This person generally divides their time between the team itself and stakeholder engagement. The initiative owner is not a manager in the traditional sense – they don’t tell the team what to do and when to do it.
  • The team roadmaps its plan. High-priority tasks are broken down into smaller activities collaboratively, and a definition of ‘done’ is set.
  • The team works on the product’s (or project’s) development in short cycles called sprints. Sprints typically run for less than a month, usually about two weeks.
  • Sometimes, a process facilitator (who might be a qualified Scrum Master) helps the team stay on task, minimize distraction, and get the most out of its dynamic skillset.
  • Transparency is vital, and objectives are co-created. Members hold daily stand-up meetings, short (less than 15 minutes) team meetings that check on progress, coordinate activities, and flag obstacles.
  • Disagreements are resolved through experimentation – not by appealing to authority. Team members test working prototypes with small customer samples over short periods. The team then reviews feedback and plans to make improvements before the product is re-tested.
  • The team takes time at regular intervals to reflect, learn, and improve how they get things done.

If you decide to implement the basic workings of Scrum, it’s crucial to look back after implementation and assess these events to determine which serve your goals.

The Agile Mindset

Perhaps you can recall presentations or articles detailing how a company implemented and benefited from Agile. If you take their ‘how’ (or the ‘how’ dot-pointed above) verbatim and move it into the context of your own organization, people, and customers, the outcome will differ. If one sports team copies another’s winning strategy, there’s no guarantee they’ll achieve the same results. The same logic applies here.

Part of this comes down to logistics. Your company is built of interdependent parts, all moving, all humming in unison. One alteration has far-reaching consequences, and your product delivery style must be tailored to account for your organizational eccentricities and other specific requirements.

Beyond logistics is mindset. You can apply the practices of Agile performatively while maintaining a mechanistic mindset. You can implement the ‘how’ of the new paradigm using the thinking of the old paradigm, but you won’t achieve the ‘what’ Agile promises.

Instead, Agile becomes another box to tick, deadline to meet, and task to micromanage.

A change in mindset doesn’t happen overnight. During the transition, the two paradigms exist simultaneously and, in some cases, overlap. Think about Henry Ford's introduction of the assembly line – it didn’t become the sole means of car production overnight. Specialist shops continued to use craftspeople to build cars, and for many years, the two approaches ran parallel to one another.

Similarly, large companies shouldn’t be tempted to roll out a change program in one colossal sweep. Instead, start small where Agile best fits, likely in the IT department. From there, employees become advocates, coaching their colleagues through the change journey. This people-focused strategy can help relieve adverse feelings – 71 percent of people in Scrum teams believe that using Scrum causes tension with parts of the company not using Scrum.

Buy-in is integral. No buy-in and no consensus means no shift in mindset, the key to agile benefit realization. However, resistance to change is a very real challenge for organizations transitioning to Agile. Here are several strategies for removing barriers to Agile:

  • Ensure a shared vision for change. This allows every person is on the same page. Transparency is a core tenet of agile methodologies and must be upheld from day one. It helps teams see the benefits of the transition and set shared goals.
  • Pilot the change. Establish small, dedicated teams, identify initiative owners and process facilitators, and set the team's direction. Create successful pilots from which to learn and build upon. This should be done before the structure of your project management changes to give your people time and space to adjust to their new responsibilities and obligations, and build confidence in the new ways of working in your business environment.
  • Nurture Agile Enthusiasts. Encourage employees with agile experience to advocate for change. The burden of building momentum must be spread out beyond a single leader’s shoulders. One person may not be enough to elicit a genuine paradigm shift.

Thrive with Agile Amid Extraordinary Change

The world is changing and changing fast. Businesses must make a decision. They can continue as usual and suffer the consequences, or embrace the uncertainty and make adaptability their competitive edge. If you want the latter, Agile could be the answer.

Agile can help you unlock revenue growth, employee satisfaction, compelling customer experiences, and technical excellence. It can give you the mindset, tools, and conviction to deliver and excel in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape. Critically, its iterative approach ensures your solutions solve real-world customer problems.

Transitioning to Agile takes more than following a prescribed methodology step-by-step. It’s more than a way of doing – it’s a way of thinking. Sustainable and beneficial Agile adoption takes a significant shift in mindset, requiring enterprise-wide participation and commitment. It’s not something that happens overnight, but you don’t have to go it alone.

At IncrementOne, we provide tailored consulting and training that helps you move seamlessly to Agile. We can guide you toward an optimized organizational structure where innovation becomes a habit. Our strategic approach enables lightning-fast decision-making, delivers visibility over organizational performance, and provides a new perspective on customer value streams.

Tomorrow’s leaders will be those who prioritize resilience today, so schedule an appointment and let’s transform your business’s capabilities, culture, and mindset.

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