The Agile Development Process.

What it is, the pros and cons and its relevance in today's business world.

FreshWorks Studio is a fan of the Agile process. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

If you’re in tech, you probably already know what Agile is. If you’re not — if you’re in marketing or, say, construction — you’ve likely heard the term, but fast and nimble might be as far as your definition goes.

While Agile certainly is fast and nimble, it’s actually a development process devised by the software industry to get usable products to market as quickly as possible. The whole idea is one of efficiency and usability. Apple, Phillips, IBM, Cisco, Electronic Arts and major online retailers like Amazon use Agile.

There is some controversy over whether Agile can (or should) be applied to non-software sectors, but no matter what sector you are in, I think this is a breakthrough worth noting. After all, numerous non-tech companies are already applying Agile principles to the way they’re doing business:

} National Public Radio in the U.S. has found using Agile resulted in more productivity and innovation when planning programming.

} Harvard Business Review’s direct consumer feedback mechanism has boosted sales since it began to use customer feedback for packaging.

} Spanish clothing manufacturer ZARA has been getting excellent results from taking an Agile managerial approach. Because ZARA keeps production largely in its own hands rather than offshoring it, and because of a commitment to keeping the design and manufacturing teams in constant contact, the company now can design, produce and deliver a new garment to its stores in about two weeks.

} Closer to home, just a few of the local crews embracing Agile include mobile app developer FreshWorks Studio, mobile advertising provider Go2mobi, and desktop software analytics giant Redbrick. Even the BC Pension Corporation has brought an Agile project manager on board.

The Manifesto that Started it All

Agile is guided by a manifesto set forth in 2001 by a handful of software developers who for years had been working to jettison stale, cumbersome methods of product development. These methods tended to be overly planned and micromanaged. The manifesto creators (all 17 of them) understood that software developers and their customers needed a way to get better-quality products to market quicker, without getting bogged down in reams of written requirements.

Their process, articulated in The Agile Manifesto, strips out cumbersome structure and documentation and emphasizes collaboration between developer and customer. It focuses on adapting the product to the customer’s feedback and quickly refining or changing the product in order to better suit the customer’s needs.

Would you like to nerd out for a moment with me? OK, good. The Agile Manifesto sets out these four elements:

1} It favours conversation over documentation.

2} It favours the idea of working software (or a functional artifact) over mounds of specification (instructions for how to make it perfectly).

3} It favours ongoing and continuous collaboration with the customer instead of being tied to a contract where every part of the project is spelled out.

4} It accepts that change is inevitable, so you plan for it. This means that any structures and frameworks you’re working with should be able to absorb change without the project falling apart.

In simple terms, Agile is like parenting, where you talk with your kid about their evolving desires. Then you simply shift your practices to better support them, instead of operating from an overly detailed rulebook that worked for about a week back when they were a toddler.

It’s Called Communication (And it Works Every Time)

At the core of Agile is this idea: a customer should not work for months creating a specification, then have a software team code for that specification for another number of months, delivering the product only after they finally get it built.

Instead, Agile means the group does just enough investigation and just enough requirements gathering to start developing early prototypes. Then the developers begin delivering those early prototypes to the customer. Customer feedback is met by a responsive development team — and iteration begins.

If you take software out of it, we’re talking about early prototypes of any concept you are working on. You develop early versions of that thing, deliver them to the customer and allow them to be part of the process of creation.

Early and continuous delivery also means your concept improves between each iteration — much like how several rounds of editing will improve a novel. That way, if the concept is going off the rails (or in some other way won’t fulfill its function in the marketplace), the development team can correct it early — because the customer is getting access to working versions of the product as the project continues.

You’re More Agile Than You Think

Agile was invented 18 years ago, so you might argue we shouldn’t be calling Agile a “breakthrough” approach for business. But the truth remains that applying Agile principles can open the door to your own breakthrough.

No matter what kind of business you have, adopting an Agile approach means being able to react to the unexpected, to adapt to a fast-changing market environment and to quickly respond to your customer’s needs.

You might already be following Agile principles without even knowing it. If you’re already letting your employees organize themselves into functional project teams based on their interests, you’re dabbling in Agile. If you look for what motivates each person on your team and try to get them into a place where they can apply those competencies, you’re using Agile principles. If you have a constant feedback loop with your customers so you can hear how your product might improve to better meet their needs, you’re thinking Agile.

Following the key steps in the Agile process effectively takes people out of their role-bound silos and reorganizes them into self-managed multidisciplinary teams, whose focus is suddenly — and with excellent results — on the customer. Agile accelerates profitable growth, gets your team more engaged in what they’re doing, and in turn more fully develops their capability to think and act with autonomy.

That’s a pretty great place to get your business to. So go. Be nimble like you mean it.

Alex Van Tol works with organizations to shape and communicate their brand story. From real estate to tech, she uncovers what makes an organization tick — and what can help it grow.

This article is from the December/January 2019 issue of Douglas.