The Agile Question: What Makes It a Better Way to Work?
You have most likely heard about Agile, but here is a quick rundown in case you are unaware: Agile began as a process of better software development that favoured the needs and wants of the consumer over excessive, rigid planning. This concept was quickly popularised and repurposed for fields outside of software development, perhaps most famously as a method for project management. Today, entire organisation structures can even be Agile.
When 17 individuals came together in 2001 to discuss what they perceived to be the major issues of the software development industry, they created the Agile Manifesto. This 68-word document was essentially a list of four values:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
The broad appeal and applicability of these values to other industries, business functions, and general ways of working is largely clear. The one exception is the second, which is easily amended by replacing the word “software” with “product” or “service” or “system”. Another way to phrase this that makes it easier to apply to all industries is that achieving your goal is more important than recording how you have or will achieve this goal.
However, it is a fair assumption that most people largely associate the concept of Agile solely with the last tenet. It is this philosophy of adaptability and mobility that lends the concept its name, as a starting point, but it also the element that makes Agile contemporaneous. Its existence is justified, is seen to be necessary, because of the change and disruption that we frequently see in today’s business environment. This constant changing of circumstances creates the need to adjust processes, timelines, and other elements of any operation for its objectives to be met.
Agile is often called a method, especially in regard to how it has been adapted for project management, although this term has been deliberately avoided otherwise here so far. It appears illogical to call something reliant on responding to unforeseen events (improvisation in other words) as a method. Many have previously argued that Agile is more akin to a mindset than a process.
So Agile is a thought process, rather than an action process. According to Forbes, someone can be described as possessing an Agile mindset when their focus is on “innovating and delivering steadily more customer value, with getting work done in small self-organizing teams, and with collaborating together in an interactive network.” The differences between this and a non-Agile mindset is that it contrasts with the traditional goals and elements of a business (profits and strict rules/hierarchies). Agile in practice is thus customer-centric in its philosophy, while championing autonomy and cooperative communication.
But why is this better?
Customer-centrism requires no argument for why it has value. In theory, it leads to more valuable and easier to market/sell products and services. It is the ideals of autonomy and cooperation that are of interest, and again this takes us back to the fourth value of the Agile Manifesto: responding to change over following a plan.
Even in a small organisation, say around 50 people, allowing everyone to work autonomously seems like a definite way to end up with misalignment, especially when each individual needs to be reactive and frequently adapt and shift their work. This of course becomes significantly more daunting when staff numbers in the thousands or more. Organisation structures have also become more matrixed, with cross-functional dependencies reducing the amount of truly independent and siloed employees, those who are best positioned to work autonomously.
Agile thus equally promotes cooperative communication specifically to avoid misalignment. In chaotic times, individuals and teams need the freedom to adapt their plans to changing circumstances and the agency to make these important business decisions with impunity, but they also have a responsibility to inform relevant parties within their organisation of these changes. The final element of being a successful Agile organisation is trust: trust in the reactive decision-making abilities of your colleagues, trust that they will in turn respect and support your own choices, and trust from senior leadership they have hired the correct individuals to lead these autonomous group without micro-management.
The core tenets laid out in the Agile Manifesto were a product of their time and the particulars of the software development industry, but their universality has become abundantly clear in the years since. With the experience of 2020, they seem almost tailor-made for all organisations of the contemporary world.