Agile is Traditionally Used In The Technology Sector

You’re right : probably over 80% of agile use cases involve technology projects.  After all, tech companies in the early 2000s – think Google, Apple, Shopify, Amazon, dot-com start-ups – were the first adopters of agile work methods.  But that’s about to change.  More and more companies are realizing the benefits can also be reaped in business and corporate settings.  Take one of my stories as an example.  Not too long ago, I worked for a fast fashion retailer which had product development cycles of nine months.  There was a very tight calendar with an orchestrated sequence of activities to make a clothing collection come to life, from trends research, product design, sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, warehousing to having the products on the shelves.  Nobody thought this timeframe could be reduced by much with manufacturing occurring in China and transportation lead times to Canada… BUT by applying Scrum methodology, a type of agile framework, we were able to reduce product development cycle from nine to three months!!!  So what is this agile magic all about?  Well it’s quite simple…

The Keys To Implementing The Agile Framework in a Business Setting

First, you need to set-up small cross-functional teams that are empowered, accountable, self-organized, fact-driven and ideally dedicated full-time on a project.  No more than 7 people should be on the team or in any form of meetings, which forces you to think twice about the right people and skill-sets you need to deliver the objectives.  In my previous example, there used to be upwards of 30 people in product reviews to give their input about clothing collections.  You can only imagine how unproductive that consensus-driven process was, with constant back-and-forth’s slowing down the process and more meeting follow-ups being scheduled than decisions made.

Second, the team has clearly defined roles to work at its best.  There is one product owner that holds the vision for the project, sets priorities and collaborates with stakeholders as needed.  That role is typically held by a leader who has decision-making authority and the most successful ones are servant leaders who empower their team vs. tell them how to do the work.  No co-ownership, ok?  There can only be one owner accountable for the overall project.  There is one Scrum Master or agile coach whose role is to help the team best use agile to deliver the project, remove roadblocks, and facilitate agile events (daily stand-ups, sprint planning, sprint reviews, sprint retrospective, etc.).  Lastly, there are around 5 team members (+/- 2) who are accountable to deliver the chunks of work on-time, on scope and on quality.

Third, you must embrace customer input as a core value.  Agile is a customer-centric approach that incorporates customer input throughout projects to validate and iterate based on their feedback.  The last thing you want is people making decisions based on their own bias as a consumer vs. based on the target customer’s needs.  Too often, I would hear colleagues say “I don’t like this piece of clothing and wouldn’t buy it for myself”… but if you’re in your 40s making this comment and the target customer is a teenager, that’s not necessarily a good gauge for success!  With access to technologies nowadays (I often find myself answering a 1-minute poll on Facebook for the brands I follow), obtaining customer feedback has never been easier and it’s a great way to create lasting customer engagement.

Fourth, your projects must adopt a fast cadence to frequently deliver increments.  The philosophy behind agile is to move quickly so you can “fail fast”, measure, learn and improve the next delivery.  Typically the work is segmented into two-week “sprints”, so that the increment delivered can be validated rapidly with key stakeholders.  In the agile world, delivering a working output upon which you iterate is more important than extensive documentation or perfect output.  How many project reviews have you sat through where the output at the end – after having spent too many months and significant investments – was not what you initially had in mind at the onset of the project?  Too often I’m sure… With agile, it’s difficult to experience this scenario given the bi-weekly validations and clear “definitions of done” established for every deliverable at the beginning of a two-week sprint.  The agile framework aims to eliminate confusion on what the expectations are.  And in the unlikely event the team did not deliver against the ‘definition of done’ that was expected, well you only invested in the last two weeks… not months!

Agile board

A scrum board in use. Easy to see the progress of all tasks for the team.

Lastly, it is important to provide complete transparency into your project’s progress.  The self-organized team can choose to create a simple physical agile board where they keep track of what’s in the backlog, what’s in progress, what’s blocked and what’s done.  Anybody walking by the team’s area can understand within seconds where the team is at. Alternatively, if the team is operating virtually in multiple locations, they can use online tools such as Trello (user-friendly tool for first-time agile practitioners) or Jira from Atlassian (helpful tool for projects with a strong technology component or for experienced agile practitioners).  The agile team typically will meet daily for a 15-minute stand-up where they go through their agile board and discuss if there are any roadblocks impacting their progress, so you know almost immediately if there’s an obstacle to be removed.  No need to wait for the traditional weekly project status that most corporations use for their projects!

In our practice at L&C, we use the agile framework when working with clients on complex business strategy issues, so you can see that agile can be applied to the business world as much as it has been applied to the tech world.  Are you convinced now?

To learn more about the agile process and scrum, check out  Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland.

Julia Bouvet is a business strategy consultant and a Certified Scrum Master (PSM I), helping enterprises solve business problems and unlock their full potential.