Organizations want to be agile for numerous reasons: the need to increase competitiveness and effectiveness, to bring products and services to the market quickly, the wish to react quickly to changing circumstances, or to introduce savings. Being Agile is not only trendy but also necessary. How do we become truly agile in order to succeed?
Currently, being Agile is discussed in the context of most projects. Historically, this methodology applied only to IT. However, the world of business decided that its principles could be applied to all areas where flexibility, speed, and efficiency are important. Yet, being Agile doesn’t always mean success if you don’t do it properly and if your organization isn’t ready for it.
What is Agile Methodology?
Before we dive into the way to make an agile org work, let’s get back to some origins. The early 1990s saw rapid development of modern (for that time) technologies. The market was changing so rapidly that project assumptions developers were working on had already become outdated by the time the product was released. The cascade method of project management, called Waterfall, used at the time, assumed a traditional approach: setting goals and a scope of work, building a product, testing it, fixing bugs. The whole process took so long (3 years on average) that projects were often stopped at the initial stages. The problem was growing throughout the decade, creating more and more frustration among software team members.
This frustration led to the development of new standards for project management, known in the history of management as the “Agile Manifesto.” It was 2001 and a group of 17 American programmers suggested that running projects should follow 4 key values:
1. Putting individuals and interactions above processes and tools;
2. Delivering a working product instead of comprehensive documentation;
3. Customer collaboration rather than contract negotiation;
4. Responding to change over following a plan.
The manifesto was then refined to create consistent, and most importantly, effective principles for flexible project management. The main assumption is the unpredictability of the process – when starting a project, we cannot plan it in detail and the team follows a regularly updated list of priorities.
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Not just software
Although Agile principles were created for software development teams, they soon gained recognition across a wide range of business sectors. Today, the methodology is applied in many projects, including HR, L&D, marketing, and customer service. In Digital.ai Agility’s latest, 15th, State of Agile report, over half of respondents (52%) say that most or all of the teams at their companies use Agile methodology. It is hardly surprising since the rapidly changing ‘new normal’ requires companies to quickly implement numerous solutions. It turns out, however, that for many companies being Agile is harder than it might seem.
Agile org – not for everyone?
Despite the increasing familiarity with agile management methods and their growing popularity over recent years, research has shown that they are not a recipe for success in every case. Some market reports indicate that as many as 47% of Agile transformations fail. High-profile project failures in recent years and criticism from many experts, including Ron Jeffries, one of the creators of the Agile Manifesto, have even contributed to a declaration that we are seeing the beginning of the end for the methodology.
The truth is, however, that no ideas have come up yet as to what can replace it. Agile still has a lot of supporters and, what’s important, there is ample evidence that it is effective, even in this dynamic reality, changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. What is it, then, that makes being agile easier for some organizations than for others? It turns out that the success of Agile can be determined by a few key principles.
3 things to remember in an agile organization
#1: Methodology – yes, fanaticism – no
Ron Jeffries has no doubt that what hurts Agile is too much adherence to the methodology and following the process slavishly. Organizations wanting to be agile must accept change in every field, whereas sticking to the guidelines is a contradiction of this principle. Many Agile practitioners follow the 12 principles rigidly, forgetting the 4 core values, which are worth remembering at every stage of an agile project.
#2. Agile as a mindset
Jenny C. Conrads, People Development & Organizational Resilience Consultant, who was HCM Deck’s guest speaker at the #Social Collaborative Learning L&D Meetup, believes that companies that follow Agile by focusing on process overlook their employees’ values and attitudes towards the method. Agile is a certain mindset and a constant work of managing oneself in change. In today’s world, accepting a lack of stability and developing an ‘agile approach to life’ will constitute some of the most sought-after competencies in the market.
#3. Fostering a learning culture
Fostering a learning organization culture by implementing a smart and agile (!) L&D strategy is critical to Agile success as there isn’t a single fixed set of knowledge while learning the rules does not guarantee success. Companies that want to be agile need to develop an effective plan for information sharing and employee development, using formal (e.g. e-learning) and informal (e.g. social learning) methods which help not only to teach but also to motivate each other, improve and challenge the status quo by individual team members.
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Although there are many difficulties related to introducing Agile transformations, we are convinced that the number of agile organizations will grow. However, if we want to apply it on a larger scale, we need to follow the advice of the manifesto’s creators, who recommend going back to the roots. Therefore, being agile means, above all, flexibility, openness to failure and differences of opinion, as well as accountability. This kind of organizational culture cannot be created by imposing Agile methodology – it is the result of cooperation and engagement of everyone in the company.