Over the last 20 years there has been a growing movement of change in business. It coincides with the rise of the internet, the dot-com boom, the iPhone, AI, cryptocurrencies and other cutting-edge technologies. It goes by the name of Agile and has been described as the most important management idea.
It started in the world of software developers, who were growing tired of the increasing bureaucracy in the way companies were trying to deliver software projects. Back in 2001, the thought leaders of the time came together to compare notes and experiences of what was working for them and what wasn’t. They created the Agile Manifesto, consisting of four values and 12 principles with a few surrounding and positioning words.
There is a predilection for methodologies in the world of project management, software development and delivery, and now product management. These are recipes for how work should be done. Today, there are dozens of methodologies all claiming to be “the answer” to all delivery problems. Many claim to support the Agile Manifesto. Some do the job better than others. Some don’t do the job at all – they’re more a marketing tool and money-making scheme than a well-evidenced set of results. Agile is an important idea, but that doesn’t mean that your chosen methodology will deliver on its promise.
The challenge ahead of us
Agile has moved from software developers to the boardroom. There’s now a constant march to scale. It’s now being cited as the CEO’s job to make Agile work. CEOs have always had a lot to do. Between balancing the need to hit short-term results, creating a long-term strategy for growth, serving customers and keeping ahead of the ever-challenging competitive landscape and disruption, they now need to ensure that Agile works in their company. But, the reality is that Agile is not enough. The reason it isn’t enough is because it’s not a single thing. It’s not an off-the-shelf product. It doesn’t have a single definition nor is it something you just buy and impose on your organization or enterprise.
What about Design Thinking? What about Lean Startup? What about DevOps? What about the shift to being more customer-focused? What about just fixing the current operational challenges and all of the changes on the agenda to keep ahead of the competition? What about Lean? These are all ideas that come and go, over and over. Digital disruption is happening, and it’s time to change the way enterprises address how technology, product management and operations work alongside customers together to bring the best ideas to market as effectively as possible.
Which methodology will be chosen? How will it all be blended together and support the unique elements of a company’s culture and be standard enough that the right talent can be hired from the marketplace? The reality is no single methodology fits and scales well enough to all the contexts of any enterprise. There are always ‘gotchas.’ Context is everything. And, a CEO needs all of this to scale and stick across hundreds and thousands of people. This means that the message needs to be simple and powerful, and flexible enough to work in multiple areas. You can’t just say “we need agile” – there’s so much more to think about.
One of the most overlooked lines in the Agile Manifesto is also one of the most important – it says, “we are uncovering better ways.” The writers knew (and still know) that discovery is one of the most powerful weapons to ensuring success with Agile.
For example, scrum has been such a great servant to the world of Agile. It’s dominated the landscape because of its simplicity and some of the new roles it introduced. But it hasn’t always fitted the enterprise well – it seems incomplete and, maybe, too simple for ‘proper’ enterprise businesses. It was designed for ‘New Product Development,’ so it’s not a surprise that it hasn’t always worked well for large IT system development projects. Scrum@Scale, SAFe and LeSS all look to solve the problem of adopting Agile in large projects and programs. These are far more complicated (and maybe even a little convoluted), and certainly wouldn’t be considered simple methodologies.
Simplifying to make it work in context
So, what’s the answer for the CEO? It’s to create an environment where people can implement the most appropriate way of working that will deliver the most value. They need to arm their companies with the power to discover what works best for them, how to design great products and services for their customers, and how to bring their best ideas to life. And this is best done by simplifying the methodology landscape with a few principles and practices that can be applied throughout a business.
Three tried and tested principles are:
- Deliver value early and often
- Optimize the flow of work end to end
- Discover quality with fast feedback
These can be adapted to the language of an enterprise industry or specific company. They can be made meaningful by connecting to the company’s vision, mission and goals. And they can be interspersed with existing corporate values by combining the right set of practices and principles available, not by just subscribing to a methodology.
In order to do this at scale, there are three essential practices to be mastered. These are:
There are many uncertainties in the current business world. We need to keep discovering what customers want, what improvements are required to current operations, how to improve the delivery of ideas, and what new technology might be able to do for our business. All of these require us to develop the muscle of experimentation. It also requires leaders to create an environment where learning, failure and uncertainty are tolerated more than a constant focus on on-time and on-budget project delivery.
Value is one of the topics that is missing from many conversations across enterprises. It is a missing dynamic from scoping and trade-off conversations where it matters most – in the design and delivery of new ideas. Compelling value propositions are the lifeblood of growth and competitive advantage. Enabling people at all levels to engage in conversations about value propositions requires workflows that engage diverse groups and encourages imagination, innovation and creativity.
Much of the work that happens in the knowledge economy is invisible. Whether the work is related to change management, product, service and software development or innovation, plans, ideas and customers can be hidden from many people who are dependent on the information. Work is hidden in documents, emails, and in the heads of customers, designers and developers. Visualization tools are essential for pulling together an organization to deliver big ideas. It’s the fuel that supports collaboration, communication and coordination.
Focus on outcomes, not methodology adoption
As most businesses today face increased competition, customer expectation and technology disruption, the case for change is as urgent as ever. This is leading to CEOs needing to challenge the status quo to create new digital business models, intelligent agents and other consumer technologies. All this requires new approaches to work that highlight the need for more creativity and innovation throughout the organization. To do this, the organization needs to frame and focus on outcomes using a few guiding principles rather than a methodology.
Clear and simple principles that can be adapted in different areas will lead to more value being delivered, and a greater flow of valuable ideas to market and better products and services that delight customers. It will also help make other methodology investments work more effectively and become stickier. It leads to companies that spend more time on discussing value propositions rather than just budgets or even ticking the box on a well-completed agile initiative. And it helps enterprises re-organize around the most important Ideas, rather than functional silos and departments.
It creates an environment around governing for discovery and enables companies to better deal with uncertainty at speed. And it leads to longer-term investment profiles focused on how the key capabilities of the business will capitalize on technology and customer change rather than on short-term projects. And it all leads to a more engaged, empowered organization able to move at speed. If you find your adoption focused on checklists and adoption progress rather than discussing how much quicker you’re engaging and responding to customers and your competitors, you have fallen into the trap of methodology rollout.
Ultimately, Agile is probably better described as a set of outcomes that lead to a responsive, customer-focused and adaptive business and that comes from us making different decisions on how work should work, and how we lead our companies. It’s important to keep the outcomes front and center. A good indicator is to judge how your answer to this question changes over time: If I someone in my organization has a great idea today, when will my customer first know or benefit from our innovation?