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What is Agile?

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Everyone’s talking about it.  Some people are “doing” it.  Some people are “being” it – they even call themselves “Agilists”.  But really, what is this thing call Agile, and what is all the fuss about?

Agile is a new way of business.  It’s a new, and very different, “business model” if you like.  Agile’s emergence as a fast-growing global movement is driven by the realisation that, the only way that organisations are able to cope and survive with today’s turbulent, dynamic, customer-driven marketplace is to become Agile.  The Agile way of working enables organisations to master continuous change and enables them to flourish in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – the so-called VUCA world.

Where it All Started

Agile started in the software development industry in the late 1990s.  The Agile Manifesto of 2001 reflected the views of visionary software developers who believed that “uncovering better ways of developing software” would require a reversal of some fundamental assumptions of 20th Century management.  The Agile Manifesto consists of a set of 4 values and 12 principles.  It is not a methodology or a best practice, although a number of different practices, tools and processes have emerged over time, such as Scrum, Disciplined Agile, SAFe, etc.

Agile is, primarily, a different Mindset.  And it is considered that, using the practices, tools and processes without the Agile Mindset is not Agile.  Agile is a time boxed, iterative approach to delivering products or services that defines, designs, builds and delivers the product or service incrementally instead of trying to design the full product or service at the start of the project and deliver it all at once near the end.

Agile is Iterative Development

Agile is an iterative development methodology that values human communication and feedback, adapting to changes, and producing working results.  It works by breaking down the product or service into little bits of user functionality called user stories, prioritising them, and then continuously delivering them in short, generally two-week, cycles called iterations or sprints.  At the end of each Sprint is a special meeting called a Retrospective at which just 4 questions are asked:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What have I learned?
  • What still puzzles me?

The Retrospective sums up the fundamental philosophy of Agile – we only fail when we fail to learn.

Why Managers find it So Difficult

What makes Agile difficult for some managers to grasp, is that it’s not just a methodology or process that can be implemented within a firm’s current assumptions.  The Agile way of running an organisation redefines the very concept of the corporation that has prevailed for the last one hundred years.

Instead of the organisation being viewed as an efficient, steady-state machine, aimed at exploiting its existing, time-proven business model, Agile organisations are growing, learning, adapting living organisms that are in constant flux to exploit new opportunities and add new value for customers.

Instead of power trickling down from the top, Agile recognises that, the future of the organisation depends on inspiring those doing the work, to accelerate innovation and add genuine value to customers.  This requires giving autonomy to self-organising teams within broad parameters of control.  The key is to be smarter by generating more value from less work and delivering it sooner.

Modern Agile

Agile itself is evolutionary.  Over the past decade, innovative companies, software industry thought leaders and lean/agile pioneers have discovered simpler, sturdier, more streamlined ways to be agile.  These modern approaches share a focus on producing exceptional outcomes and growing an outstanding culture.  Modern agile methods are defined by four guiding principles:

  • Make People Awesome
  • Make Safety a Prerequisite
  • Experiment & Learn Rapidly
  • Deliver Value Continuously

Benefits of “Going Agile”

There are a number of direct benefits of being an “agile” organisation:

Faster to Market – Anyone with a smartphone understands – we’re living in an app economy.  Customers expect to see product updates and improvements on a regular basis.  When you can get your releases out the door at an agile pace, you’ll not only deliver value to customers faster than your competition, you’ll get revenue coming in sooner too.

Build high-quality products that customers value – Agile’s user-centric approach—which delivers value in short cycles so customer feedback can be integrated into the development process—means you can align your strategy and development work around building what customers want most.  Agile approaches also integrate testing into the development process, which improves quality and helps identify defects prior to release.

Reduce risk and eliminate waste – Traditional software development required long planning, design and development phases resulting in infrequent, big-bang releases that risked delivering the wrong product, too late.  By delivering value to customers more frequently and integrating their feedback, agile approaches help you respond more effectively to the market, reducing the risk of expensive market mistakes.

Collaborate better – Self-organising, cross-functional teams are the foundation of successful agile practices.  These empowered teams don’t just produce better products and services, they also lead to more engaged employees.  According to a study by Coleman Parkes, organisations can increase employee productivity by 22 percent by adopting advanced agile principles.

Gain an edge on the future – A report from Accenture found that high-performing organizations are six times more likely than other organisations to have adopted agile methodologies.  And Computer Economics’ “IT Spending and Staffing Benchmarks” study estimates that 83 percent of businesses plan to implement agile (up from 59 percent previously).  It would appear that “Being Agile” is the key for business success today.

Agile HR Development Manifesto

There is now also a specific manifesto for Agile HR Development.  The values of the Agile HR Development Manifesto are:

  • Collaborative networks over hierarchical structures
  • Transparency over secrecy
  • Adaptability over prescriptiveness
  • Inspiration and engagement over management and retention
  • Intrinsic motivation over extrinsic rewards
  • Ambition over obligation

And the principles of the Agile HR Development Manifesto are:

  • Support people to engage, grow, and be happy in their workplace
  • Encourage people to welcome change and adapt when needed
  • Help to build and support networks of empowered, self-organising and collaborative teams
  • Nourish and support the people’s and team’s motivation and capabilities, help them build the environment they need, and trust them to get the job done
  • Facilitate and nurture personal growth, to harness employee’s different strengths and talents

From an Agile HR perspective, here is a table of the people-related changes that we can anticipate when an organisation goes through an Agile Transformation.

Change From To
Culture Conventional Innovative, Customer Centric, Responsive
Mindset Known end-result Unknown end-result
Strategy Internal focus Continuous change
Structure Hierarchical Self-managed, autonomous work-groups
Work Job-based Roles based on Competencies
Process “Waterfall”, sequential “Agile”, iterative
Work Style Siloed, sequential Ideation oriented, collaborative
Decision-making Centralised, top-down Self-managed, autonomous teams
Career Pathing Vertical, hierarchical Multi-directional, variable
Performance Management Periodic appraisal based on past performance Continuous improvement based on development and future performance
Workforce and Succession Planning Hierarchy of jobs Variable roles and competencies
Learning and Development Periodic, formalised Constant, integrated, rapid reskilling
Remuneration Hierarchical, Job-based Role and Competency-based
Talent Management One-size-fits-all Customised
Leadership Command and Control Servant Leader
Change Management Structured Program Lean Change Management

It’s not going to be long before Agile touches all aspects of most organisations.  For HR Professionals, now is the time to get on board.  Prepare yourself and get ready to be able to effectively lead the Agile Transformation process in your organisation.
Join one of our Agile HR programs and get yourself prepared for this new way of working.