Agile Ways of Working
An agile set of working methods is a patchwork of different trends. What they have in common: They are all based on customer-centricity, adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement. In addition to methodological expertise, however, effective agile cooperation also requires the right attitude and a focus on common values.
Nowadays, hardly an innovation conference goes by without mention of how disruptively digitalization, new competitors, and innovative business models are transforming existing industries fundamentally – or even displacing them. Customer-centricity, customer experience, adaptability, and innovation have become top strategic priorities, putting the subject of agility on the agenda at many companies. Agility isn't really a new topic; it's a set of proven approaches, some of which have been around for decades, that are now being rolled out at the company-wide level. In essence, it is about the agility of people (employees and customers) and continuous improvement. Specifically, it entails collaboration with the customer; forming small, autonomous teams with a variety of experts, creating early and frequent results, and adapting to change quickly.
THE HEART OF AGILITY
Four values comprise the fundamental basis of agility:
- Making customers the focus and maintaining intensive interaction and collaboration with them.
- Strengthening teams and achieving top performance through self-organized, multidisciplinary teams.
- Developing in small steps, instead of having one big plan, and deliver work results early and continually.
- Adapting to changes quickly by responding with a flexible culture, for example, through self-reflection, feedback, self-development, and the elimination of waste.
To become agile, we must apply these values and their associated principles daily ("have an agile mindset"). That's what sets successful teams apart from the less successful ones, which "only" use the agile methods ("mastering the agile method/technique").
DOING AGILE IS NOT BEING AGILE
[The graphic is based on Robert Dilts' logical plane model and a sketch by Michael Sahota on Being and Doing Agile.]
Agile collaboration requires a more flexible, shared environment, as well as the development of new skills and behaviors. To fully capture the potential of agile collaboration, we have to go beyond mastering the operational methods and develop a common mindset. This includes shared values and principles, along with a mutual understanding of who we are and what we want to achieve through agility.
AGILE WORKING METHODS
Long-term innovation can be supported through a skilled combination of different agile frameworks. The agile toolkit consists of methods that come from several different schools of agile thought (scrum, kanban, design thinking, and lean startup).
- Design thinking: The customer needs are the starting point for creating a good user experience. Design thinking enables the team to identify the customer needs and then develop a relevant product vision based on these needs. User-centricity is the starting point for the entire process: it is where the user needs and pain points are identified. Multidisciplinary teams help to break down existing silos within the company. This combination of different perspectives and areas of expertise is essential to creating a uniform customer experience across all touchpoints, along with viable solutions. The iterative process and its multiple loops also make the "trial and error" approach an essential part of the process, which can help the project team learn from its mistakes quickly and without major losses.
- Business modelling/lean startup: A viable business model is also part of formulating a value proposition. To achieve this, design thinking is enhanced with methods from the lean startup approach and business model generation. The business model canvas, or "lean canvas", describes the elements that are essential to a viable business model. Over the course of the project, the defined assumptions are verified with experiments, enabling the team to implement the most promising business model.
- Scrum and kanban: To work effectively and efficiently, it is important to form dedicated, cross-disciplinary teams that bear end-to-end responsibility. These teams should have as few dependencies on the organization as possible, to enable autonomous work. Regular milestones and review meetings help ensure transparency and a good flow of information. Clearly communicated rules support decision-making and the full use of available leeway. The scrum framework and kanban provide a good structure for this approach to coordination, through to implementation.
- Promotion of an agile culture: Formats that support an agile culture and the sharing of knowledge are helpful in establishing an agile culture in a department – for example, working out loud, kitchen talk, lean coffee, and night of truth. These methods help to promote a culture of respect, trust, transparency, self-obligation, and honest communication.
HOW THE METHODS FIT TOGETHER
The different agile frameworks are mutually complementary and can be combined effortlessly:
[The graph is based on a simplified representation of the Board of Innovation.]
Greater intermeshing of the different schools of agile thought will support long-term strategic planning, business management, and agile implementation processes. As a result, agile work will characterize the entire value chain at a customer-centric company. This transformation can be seen at companies like SAP, Intuit, and IBM, which have strategic programs for implementing agile methods.
AGILITY versus STABILITY? WHY NOT BOTH?
Achieve steady growth in the core business, while responding to the transformation of the market with the flexibility of a startup. In business studies, this double bind is called "organizational ambidexterity": it is needed wherever the exploitation of the current and the exploration of the new are equally important to maintaining competitiveness.
Agile work is especially well suited for handling problems in complex environments, particularly on teams charged with developing product and service innovations. The opinion that agility is only suitable for handling complex issues is widespread, even among sworn "agilists". But should agile methods also be used in areas that focus on delivery and efficiency?
Many of the basic tenets of visual and lean management were originated by operational teams at Toyota. When we consider the benefits of agile, lean working methods – customer-centricity, self-organization, transparency, risk minimization through review and adaptation, and reduction of inefficiency – it quickly becomes apparent that other areas can also benefit from their use.
Even teams that aren't responsible for developing in complex environments can benefit from this new way of working by learning and applying lean, agile principles, techniques, and rituals. Agile methods are always context-dependent (there is no general blueprint) and they support the realization of the agile mindset. Small experiments can help try things out and test which working methods are the most expedient for the team and the context at hand.
There is no master plan for agile transformation. Instead, it requires an ongoing dialog, to shape together how we want to work together.