By Nicola Field
In today’s fast-paced world, the term ‘agile’ has become ubiquitous. Ask any manager or leader if they’re agile, and the response is bound to be a resounding “Yes!” But an innovative project methodology is redefining what agility is all about – and it has applications across a wide range of industries and organisations.
At this stage, some distinctions are essential. Lorna Worthington CMgr FIML, is Managing Director of Baker Worthington, and a Registered Agile Practitioner. She explains, “Agile leadership and/or management is the style. Agile Project Management is the tool or concept used for execution of projects.”
Even with this clarification, to the uninitiated, Agile methodology can appear baffling. It comes with its own language that speaks of scrums, sprints, Kanbans and stand-ups. And, as Agile first arrived on the scene around 20 years ago, a range of methodologies have evolved including Prince2, Prince 2 Agile and SCRUM. It can all seem very confusing.
Tom Lynam, Client Engagement Lead at Management Consultants – Tanner James, acknowledges that one of the first challenges of the Agile methodology is to understand what it’s all about, and how it can benefit an organisation. To build a clear picture, he says it’s worth heading back to where Agile first began.
FASTER, TIGHTER, MORE ADAPTIVE
As Lynam explains, “Agile originated in the world of software development. It was a way of working that allowed new software to be developed in smaller, shorter cycles – or bursts of activity. This way, ‘Version 1’ could be quickly completed, and then improved upon to reach ‘Version 2’. There was no point doing months of work if the customer’s needs changed or if the requirements changed over time,” adds Lynam. “So the process was simple: Develop, test and learn, then build on the product from there.”
As Lynam points out, this methodology allowed software developers to get a product to market quickly, achieving something close to customer requirements while incorporating feedback along the way.
REVOLUTIONISING PROJECT MANAGEMENT
The Agile approach is very different from the more traditional ‘waterfall’ system of project management. The latter involves a sequential, linear process spanning several distinct phases that typically include project initiation, project planning, project execution, and project completion.
A key downside of the waterfall approach is that it can hinge on very specific, rigid assumptions being in place from the outset. A sudden change to the project’s parameters have the potential to render much of the work completed to date useless, and this can throw timelines and budgets into disarray. Agile can help to overcome such risks.
Worthington explains, “Fundamentally, Agile is a bottom-up approach that empowers teams to make decisions and drive change. The approach focuses on gathering the experience of customers, staff, managers and other key stakeholders, then looking at how that information is acted upon and leveraged within the organisation.”
As with any innovation, it may initially be unclear how Agile can benefit an organisation. It can be helpful to refer to the 12-point ‘Agile manifesto’ that was drawn up in the early days to encapsulate the key aims. While many are specific to software development, all industries can take relevance from several of these founding principles, including:
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.
- Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
- Regularly reflect together on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust team behaviour accordingly.
Moreover, in today’s environment where managers are under pressure to accelerate, Agile leadership can offer distinct advantages.
As Worthington points out, an Agile leader doesn’t direct or manage projects. Rather, they offer support by removing bottlenecks. Most importantly, they articulate where the organisation is going and guide the team towards this broad vision.
ADAPTING TO AGILE
While Agile has its benefits, leaders and managers need to assess whether this approach is right for their industry, their organisation and a particular project.
Lynam believes that some industries are better suited to Agile than others. “Software development is at the far end of the scale. It is very well suited to an iterative approach. But if you’re looking at something like the construction of, say, a major bridge, the iterative approach may be less suitable.”
Academic research shows that Agile has been used with success across a variety of industries, from marketing and food manufacturing to the development of nuclear power plants.
However, even if the industry is suitable, Agile is not right for every organisation.
Lynam notes, “Agile will struggle in a ‘command and control’ environment. A core concept of the methodology is that the people doing the work are best-placed to make the decisions. This means you need a lot of trust in employees.” He is quick to add that organisational culture may be more of a blocker to Agile rather than a reason not to adopt it: “It may be that the organisation needs to change its culture.”
TAKE IT SLOW
Making the decision to adopt Agile methodologies can be invigorating for leaders and managers – and their teams. However, there are pitfalls to avoid.
Lynam explains, “A typical mistake we see when organisations aim to adopt the Agile methodology is tackling wholesale change from the outset. We recommend starting small. Bring Agile into smaller projects, test and learn using one team, and understand what worked and what didn’t.”
There can be other challenges too. Staff scheduling can be an issue as Agile projects call for a group approach. Teams can also be impacted by change requests – and approvals – which can occur quickly. This highlights the need for every team member to be able to interact, and more importantly, accept that rapid change is a possibility at any stage of a project.
As Worthington notes, “Change generally translates into varying levels of disruption, and operating in this environment demands a flexible, bottom-up approach to management and leadership.”
For managers and leaders interested in gaining accreditation in Agile methodologies, a variety of courses are available. Some are available online, others involve attending multi-day courses.
Lynam urges care in the choice of trainers explaining that while there is a wide range of price points, “You get what you pay for”, he cautions.
“Before investing in Agile training, due diligence should be undertaken to be sure you have the right support and the right level of training and coaching,” says Lynam. “Plenty of organisations sell silver bullets, but in business there are none. It’s a matter of looking at what’s available and taking best practice and tailoring this to your organisational structure.”
Lynam notes, “Formal training allows individuals to spend time with someone who has ‘been there and tried it’, and who should be able to provide pragmatic advice on how to implement the techniques in the Agile method. That said, training only gets you so far, and on-the-job training is highly valuable.”
The full version of this article originally appeared in the September 2019 print edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s quarterly magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.