It may have originated in the world of software development, but agile ways of working can significantly benefit organizations working outside of this industry too
What is 'agile', I hear you ask?
Focused on collaboration, communication, and iteration, agile methodologies have long been used by development teams to speed up time-to-market, reduce waste and risk, and rapidly respond to new trends and opportunities. Its popularity is such that 94% of software organizations and teams now practice agile, according to VersionOne’s latest State of Agile report.
Today though it’s not just those involved with software development that can benefit from an agile approach. Indeed, I’ve personally delivered coaching for organizations across a range of industries - from an events management company through logistics and automotive firms to universities and membership institutions - to support their successful transition to agile ways of working.
Here are seven elements of agile you can apply to your own projects - along with advice on how to tailor these to suit your specific requirements - to ensure you remain ahead of the curve and extract the maximum value from the methodology.
1. Iterative planning
Key to agile’s increased flexibility is an iterative approach to planning. Essentially, this means that instead of creating a comprehensive blueprint at the outset of a project (when understanding is at its lowest), planning happens continuously, through a process of on-going inspection and adaptation. This enables the direction of the project to change and evolve as understanding grows and further details of requirements emerge, as well as in response to current market conditions, stakeholder input, and user feedback.
In a marketing context, there are a number of initiatives that benefit from iterative planning. By incorporating regular reviews into an on-going promotional campaign, for example, you’ll be able to quickly drop activities that aren’t yielding results and instead re-invest in more productive areas. You could also apply an agile approach to an upcoming product launch; reviewing the priority of associated tasks as new requirements come to light.
For a practical demonstration of iterative planning, check out this version of the popular game of battleships, which shows how the approach works and the benefits it offers.
2. Iterative delivery
As with planning, agile’s approach to delivery is also iterative and focuses on the completion of individual features and tasks so that projects can go live at virtually any point as a lightweight deliverable or Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Different agile frameworks manage iterative delivery in different ways though, and the one that best suits you will depend on the specific requirements of your organization and industry.
You may, for example, want to adopt a Scrum approach, where work is completed in short, contained stages known as ‘sprints’. Typically lasting two weeks, working features are delivered and demonstrated to stakeholders at the end of every sprint, to speed up feedback loops, minimise wasted investment, and provide greater control over budgets.
In the Kanban framework by contrast, a prioritised list of tasks (or ‘backlog’) is used to manage activity, with limits placed on work in progress to ensure that the most valuable items are delivered first, and that bottlenecks are identified and resolved at an early stage (this on-demand webinar also has more information on how to get Kanban running in your team).
Of course, you could also adopt a hybrid model that combines these two approaches - choosing specific aspects from each to create something that’s uniquely tailored to your needs.
3. User stories
While not exclusive to the approach, user stories do align closely with agile’s core principles and can help maximise the value being delivered through your projects.
User stories take the form “As [user], I want to [task], so that [motivation]”, which ensures that requirements are expressed with direct reference to the user needs that are being fulfilled, and also makes them ideal for communicating these requirements to all relevant project stakeholders in a format that’s clear and easy-to-understand.
If this specific format doesn’t work for you though, what really matters is that you communicate requirements in a way that maintains the qualities of a good user story. The INVEST mnemonic can prove useful here:
Tasks may, therefore, be “draft a blog post”, “identify valuable PPC terms”, or “present the business case for a new strategic investment” - but there’s really no limit to their potential diversity.
4. Estimation and prioritization
Breaking your requirements down into clear, contained user stories (or similar tasks) will make it much easier to assess the effort needed to complete each unit of work; supporting and streamlining any subsequent estimation activities. Additionally, agile promotes a range of techniques to help safeguard the accuracy of estimates, such as planning poker and affinity estimation.
Once estimated, you’ll also want to prioritize your stories according to business value, although of course exactly how this value is defined will depend on your specific goals and objectives. However you choose to prioritize though, it’s important that - in line with agile’s iterative process - you regularly review your prioritized list as your project progresses.
This will deliver you a backlog of tasks that are always up-to-date so that you can be confident the most valuable features are being worked on at all times. It also enables you to amend your backlog in response to any feedback received - which leads me nicely on to…
5. Demonstrations, retrospectives, and stand-ups
Providing team members and the wider stakeholder group with the chance to regularly assess project progress, demonstrations, retrospectives, and stand-ups are all key features of the Scrum framework. Let’s look at each of these in turn:
- These occur at the end of every sprint and involve both the core project team and those stakeholders that may not be directly involved in the day-to-day running of the project. As such, they offer the chance to capture feedback that can then be used to inform subsequent prioritization and delivery activities, as well as acting as a valuable project check-point.
- These also take place following the completion of each sprint, but rather than focusing on the project deliverables instead allow the project team to reflect on their performance - identifying what is working well alongside any areas for improvement.
- Stand-ups. Augmenting the more formal demonstrations and retrospectives, stand-ups occur daily throughout the sprint and allow team members to share what they achieved the previous day, what they’re going to work on next and any blockers they may be facing, to help maintain project momentum and foster high levels of visibility.
6. Communication and collaboration
While the techniques listed so far all undoubtedly offer value to organizations both within and beyond the software development industry, truly unlocking the power of agile requires a cultural shift right across your team or teams. Fostering effective collaboration, in particular, is key, as this will provide you with the insight needed to keep activity aligned with your strategic goals and ensure you’re addressing real-world requirements and use contexts.
It’s important therefore to look at how well your team communicates and works together currently, and put in place any training activities to ensure they have both the understanding and skills needed to manage these activities. Additionally, tools such as instant messaging systems and project management solutions can also support productive communication (although face-to-face will always be one of the most effective channels!), and you may wish to consider introducing testing activities into your processes, to give you end-user feedback at an early stage.
7. Team structures and roles
To ensure projects are delivered as efficiently as possible, many agile frameworks recommend limiting core team size to between three and six; a model that can help numerous industries to maintain focus and velocity. Traditionally, of course, this ‘core team’ referred to developers producing web and software solutions, but can be applied to anything from salespeople making calls through to content strategists defining and producing copy.
There are also typically a number of additional functions surrounding this core team that it may be beneficial to introduce (you can even assign these roles to existing team members, provided they’re informed of the scope of and reasons behind their responsibilities):
- Product Owner. Representing the voice of the user, the Product Owner is responsible for making sure that the work being completed delivers the greatest possible value to the end-users, and maintaining this user focus throughout the project.
- Scrum Master. This is a particularly relevant role for sprint-based approaches, as Scrum Masters help optimise team performance by removing those blockers identified in the daily stand-up, alongside working with other stakeholders to ensure the core team are properly supported.
The presence of these two roles does not mean, however, that the team should be micro-managed. Indeed, the goal should be to build teams that are empowered to take ownership of tasks and make decisions, while maintaining on-going communication and collaboration to keep the project aligned with your strategic goals.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to explore further some of the agile techniques introduced in this post. Before you begin your own agile transformation journey, however, it’s vital that you underpin it with a clearly-defined strategy, and the following tasks can help you to achieve this:
- Conduct an ‘as-is’ audit
- Identify the most appropriate approach for you
- Create a training plan
- Implement a trial project/period
- Roll out across your organization
Not forgetting, of course, to keep inspecting and adapting as you go!