Agile, the increasingly popular methodology created by a group of snow sports-loving developers vacationing in Colorado, is a way to maximize value and innovate quickly in response to outside forces. In contrast to waterfall (the traditional project management approach used in many organizations) agile emphasizes a short, iterative approach to development.
There is no shortage of information on agile, but the quantity of it can be overwhelming. We’ve curated the information in this article to cover the basics: an introduction to agile, types of agile methods, and considerations for organizations.
Introduction to Agile
Simply put, agile is a way of working. Agile focuses on an iterative approach to project management. It can be implemented in a variety of ways, but each employs the same key tenants. Agile helps organizations or teams:
Break down work into actionable pieces and tackle it in short increments called sprints or iterations.
Highlight team collaboration and cross-functionality.
Emphasize prioritization of work based on business value and market changes.
Realize value incrementally after every sprint rather than only at the end of the project.
Unlike waterfall, agile puts emphasis on continuous improvement that is dependent on the rapid feedback a short iterative cycle provides.
Types of Agile Methods
While the key tenants above are common across all types of agile, there are a few different types, each with its own unique elements.
Scrum is a framework first introduced in the late 1980s and refined during the 90s. Scrum focuses on empirical decision-making, small teams, simplicity, and transparency to approach development. It made famous terms like “sprint,” “daily scrum,” and “retrospective.” By dividing work into short spurts with well-defined start and end dates (i.e. sprints) it allows teams to focus on their work by timeboxing their efforts. This method is a very basic form of agile that can be implemented quickly and is best suited for companies who want to make an incremental move toward agile without a complete process overhaul.
Originating in Japan, Kanban is a lean method for work management. It emphasizes visualization, collaboration, and continuous flow for project work. Kanban’s claim to fame is the Kanban board. Breaking down work into sticky notes or tasks on boards can help teams keep track of what’s happening, compare the amount of work in progress versus not started, and serve as a physical reminder of the tasks that need to be completed. It also allows team members to “pull” a task off the board to execute as soon as they have capacity which enables a continuous cycle of development. If your organization has an emphasis on visuals, likes to keep it simple, or is taking baby steps toward a capacity-based model, this could be the method for you. This method works great for non-development teams too.
Lean Management / Software Development
Adopted from lean manufacturing, lean management focuses on five basic principles centered around customer needs. By identifying value, mapping work into “value streams,” and establishing a workflow, the team is able to continuously pull work that meets the highest customer demands as needed and enables continuous improvement. Your organization will benefit from this method if you want to put more emphasis on the customer’s desires and wants. By basing your business on value streams aligned to the customer (whether external or internal), you will be able to prioritize large initiatives against each other.
Scaled Agile Framework
Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) combines practices from the aforementioned types of agile and DevOps (an adjacent, but complementary set of processes around deployment efficiency) practices into a framework that focuses on turning an organization of any size (from small businesses to larger enterprises) into an agile-minded business. Your organization will benefit from this method if you want to take a more formal, phased approach to introducing agile into your organization due to size or maturity needs.
Considerations for Your Organization
Still Questioning if Agile Is Right For You?
Agile isn’t just for startup or tech companies—while agile started as a software development method, it can be adapted to fit the needs of any organization no matter their size or focus. The methods of agile can be applied outside of development and help other departments within an organization capitalize on iterative approaches to product development and encourage innovation from more traditional business sectors.
Agile can be for large or small companies, or anything in-between. While agile is very prevalent and easily adapted in startup environments, large established businesses can also become agile. Methods like SAFe and lean portfolio management focus on helping large corporations understand their vision and priorities, which can be broken down into agile teams across an organization.
The most important thing when becoming agile is to realize that agile is a mindset.
While the agile methodology can be a great boon to your company, it is only effective if everyone is on board and willing to reshape the way they think about traditional business processes. The agile manifesto (found here) is a great place to start when beginning discussions around adopting agile. Being agile requires a commitment to change your perception and truly instill agile values into how your organization functions.
Agile has a unique value proposition, but a full or even partial agile transformation may not always be the best solution. A few questions to ask yourself if you’re considering agile:
1) Can you receive executive buy-in?
In order for an organization to be agile, everyone must adopt the principles, and we recommend that you take both a top-down and bottom-up approach to integrating it into your company. Agile doesn’t work well if the business continues to be waterfall and is expected to meet rigid milestones, while the development or product teams are agile.
2) Are groups in your organization willing to communicate?
Agile requires a high level of communication and collaboration to ensure transparency and manage expectations. If groups aren’t willing to communicate, then handoffs between teams won’t happen correctly.
3) Has your company been successful in a waterfall environment? Are you able to respond to change and keep on top of deadlines?
There may be no need for your company to make the switch to agile. Making unnecessary changes to the way you do business could bring unexpected issues and problems. However, there are ways to incorporate some agile practices, like daily stand ups or a kanban board, into your current processes that could be beneficial to your ways of working.
What Is Your Organization’s Agile Journey?
Agile is a methodology, not a step-by-step plan you must follow; it allows for adaptability and continuous improvement. No company’s agile journey is exactly the same, and it’s important to understand that the ways it evolved for another business or industry may not hold true for your company.
That said, agile is not a free for all or an excuse to make constant changes whenever you want. If you don’t have the appropriate guard rails in place and are constantly switching paths, you may end up spending an endless amount of money and time while never finishing a product. There is a level of structure that, if done correctly, allows for adaptation and innovation and will create new opportunities for your company to succeed in a rapidly changing landscape.
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