What Agile Really Means for Project Teams and Organisations

Doing More with Less

If you had a penny for every time you heard that… Coincidence or not most of the talk about agile started to be seriously considered exactly when people started to ask for more with less. Indeed, when done right, agile practices do deliver more results with less resources. I guess, the only real question here is how badly do you need to do that? Again, coincidence or not, a change in the way we manage projects happened exactly when changing was the only option.

What Really Drives Change?

So why improve?

We are lucky enough to have to face recession times quite frequently. Why lucky? Because it is in these moments that we are truly looking for alternatives. Every time we search for improvements but we do it from the comfort of our current status, we are not really changing anything and any solution only marginally changes the way we work. In tough times, we don’t have that comfort and whatever we enterprise, it needs to work and have a serious impact otherwise you’re out of business the next day. You know what they say, you will change when change is the only option. Many change management books refer to this as the “burning platform”. Simply put, you don’t react unless your platform is burning. In recession times, there are fires everywhere and, as we have seen on several occasions, it really comes down to survival of the fittest. But do we really need all that turmoil to actually do something?

Well, not really! It would be preferable to consider change and improvement when you have the time, comfort and resources to do it right. But then again, that’s the biggest enemy of change. Some companies, more and more it seems, are embracing change as part of their corporate culture. They don’t need the stress or the downturn to make it happen. In these lucky situations change is natural and comes from within. This is a skill we should all develop and master.

Why is not the recession a good moment to change?

Simply because most of us won’t make it alive! Change is difficult, the pressure is high and mistakes are deadly. What we can do however is exercise our reacting skills, our agility and organisational fitness. Learn from this experience and try to transfer this mind-set and practices into your DNA. Change is about improving efficiencies and processes so you achieve the same results with less resources and more results with same resources. There is always something that can be changed for the better. The only question is what and how it’s done. Agile might not be the silver bullet that everybody hopes, but for almost 70 yearsit has proved its efficiency in making teams and organisations more dynamic and faster when it comes to market changes. And in 70 years, you get to see a few recessions, too! So, how do you become more efficient?

Strangely enough, it is by not working so hard!

We are born with the belief that if you want more results you have to work more. I think everybody has been in a situation where you have had to deliver more results and the best idea we could come up with was overtime. That’s how we scale. By working more! What’s wrong with working you might ask. Well, it’s not efficient, it’s expensive and quite frankly, we are smarter than that. Management theories have been put in place (we have to thank Frederick Taylor for that!) to reinforce the idea that we are reduced to merely two arms and our brain is optional. The usage at least. Probably the most obvious illustration is when we have an idea that would improve the way we work and it get’s lost because we just can’t implement it. You can blame management, bureaucracy or time pressure but it is much easier to just work than to think and improve things. That’s probably why all the big change initiatives either fail or take too much time to actually see some results. Agile teams are motivated and understand that the only way to bring value is to be efficient.

Anybody can build anything today. But it takes a committed team to constantly care about improving the way they work. The real competition is not your competitor. Is your performance from a month ago, a week ago or even a day ago.

How you do that?

First, get rid of traditional management. I am not saying managers, I am saying management!

In my experience managers actually love this idea. They agree that they can do smarter things than estimating for your teams, allocating work and chasing everybody around so they can do their job. Shift some responsibilities to the team. You discover that they are in fact much more competent then you would expect. They can plan for themselves, they can sign up for work, they can think of improvement ideas and even implement them. Of course, to do that, they still need somebody to show them the way, the greater good and at least from time to time, a real customer in the flesh.

Technology Shifts Make Us Create Great Products

Maybe products … is not the right word! Consumers get better insights, needs evolve and wants go crazy which basically means it is less and less about products, features and requirements and more and more about value and benefits. Not that this is something new because marketing people have been talking about this for ages. Only today, with technology powering more and more industries we have more choices and our voice, the famous voice of the customer, is finally heard. It used to be very simple. Talk to customers, ask them what they want and tell your engineering team what they supposed to build. When somebody is telling you what to do, not disappointing that person is the best you could do. But more and more customers want to be impressed. And not just when they buy the next iPhone but also when they open a bank account. Its tricky business because “impress me!” is not what you would call a traditional requirement. As I always tell people, stop pretending you know better then your customers and spend some time with them. You might actually learn what they value and what they don’t. And maybe next time, you won’t have to promise 30% off just so they buy your product.

Agile promises that as long as you listen to your customers you will never be wrong.

The secret is, truly listen to them and not just once very often. Don’t build anything unless they tell you to do it and don’t ship it unless they validated it. As you can probably imagine, this is not just about easily incorporating change requests. This is about provoking change and implementing it faster than customers can imagine. More and more companies are taking extremely short cycles – a few weeks only – and delivering valuable product increments to customers. If you think it’s impossible think twice. Nowadays modern technology can make it possible to avoid all the unnecessary overhead – also called technical debt – that used to be required before actually building anything. These days it tends to be very expensive not to be on the latest technology. Still want to use your old phone? Pay for text messages instead of using free messaging apps. Still love your old car? It will probably cost you double just in fuel and maintenance. And my favourite: don’t want to renew your airplane fleet? It’s a few millions a year extra for each old plane compared with a new one. Surprisingly enough, most companies don’t actually want to delight their customers. If you go through their metrics and scorecards, you’ll probably find something about customer satisfaction. But for sure, a lot higher on the priority list you’ll find things like revenue, market share, cost reduction, shareholder value (that’s money again!) and they have nothing to do with real customers. We live in a world where most corporations put themselves first and “use” their customers as a tool to meet their objectives. No wonder agile is difficult to implement!

What would be the right way?

Start with your customers. Learn what they value and why.

Work with your teams to find the best way to deliver that benefit.

Work really hard and you’ll build a great product in a very efficient (cheap) manner.And if you succeed, customers are going to buy your product. A lot in fact! And what would be the consequence of that? Yes, you will make a lot of money!

Money and profits should be a consequence not an objective.

Put customers first and money will come. Put money first and the moment they’ll have a choice, all your customers will leave.

In Agile You Never Stop

When you really embrace agile philosophy you discover that all these things that sound so difficult and stressful are actually very simple. You can’t even judge them as hard or easy because they become your second nature.

You don’t come to work because you have a job or a mortgage to pay, but because you understand you have a skill that is extremely useful when it comes to making a customer happy. True agile is never stopping but always going further.

That’s why they call it continuous improvement, because you cannot stop it. You could even say that you’ll never be agile. You’ll always be on the way to become more agile. After all, agile has never been a destination but merely a journey.
Read more posts about Agile