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Posted by Kate Khom - 10 December, 2018

Agile Approach to Project Management, Hype or Reality?

You’ve heard of Agile. Your colleagues have heard of Agile. Your customers, your suppliers, your partners, your Uber driver, your cousin, your grandma - they’ve all heard of Agile one way or another.

The whole ‘you gotta go agile it’s the best thing ever omg’ thing has been going on for a while, often completely missing the point, confusing and misleading even the most well-meaning B2B veterans.

The goal of this article is to separate the hype from the reality; to understand the reasons behind this agile hype and why, despite everything, savvy B2B people still cannot afford to ignore the Agile approach.

agileandwaterfallSource

Where it all started

In the sense of the word we are talking about these days, Agile originates from the software development industry (which in turn builds on lean manufacturing, which in turn builds on...etc.).

history-of-agile-timelineSource

In 2001, proponents of various new approaches to software development (digital transformation) got together and formalized their efforts under the umbrella term Agile (more on this here and here).

While their methodologies and frameworks differed greatly in most aspects, they agreed upon a few basic ideas and goals:


  • Releasing working software early and building iteratively on it
  • Keeping the planning to a minimum
  • Welcoming change
  • Constant improvement
  • Autonomous, cross-functional teams
  • Increased internal and external communication and collaboration
  • Better alignment with the business side of developing software

While some methodologies (e.g. Extreme Programming) focused more on the very process of developing software, others (e.g. Scrum) put more emphasis on delivering valuable products through a new kind of project management.


Seeping into other industries

Upon discovering that the Agile approach works for software development and that many of its ideas and practices make perfect sense for industries other than software development, companies and organizations around the world started adopting Agile in one form or another.

This article from HBR mentions a number of successful non-development agile applications across some of the world’s most successful companies such as GE, John Deere and C.H. Robinson.

These days, you would struggle to find a large organization that has not started adopting Agile or that, at the very least, isn’t even considering it.

Everywhere you turn, you can learn about the benefits of being Agile, regardless of the industry, the size of the company and the way they have been operating in the past.

In other words, the hype is incredible, as is the number of organizations that are falling for it.


The Allure of Agile

As it so often goes, the reasons for this popularity are numerous and complicated. While some of them are due to the fact that Agile can work, others are not that benign.

It works for software development

Simply put, Agile works for software development. This shouldn’t really surprise us, considering its roots and the fact the majority of methodologies and frameworks were (at least originally) designed to help develop better software.

There are innumerable case studies about teams and companies turning to agile to transform the way they work for the better. Even a behemoth such as Microsoft is agile.

Pretty much all of the software developed today is developed by agile teams and organizations.

For some people, this is proof enough that agile will always work, regardless of the industry, the size nature of the company’s product (service).

It is a humongous leap in logic, but believe it or not, it is a commonly made one.

Departments using AgileDepartments using Agile Technology

It promises a lot

In a perfect situation where a team or an entire organization becomes truly Agile in the best sense of the word, the beneficial effects are really something to be excited about:


  • Faster release of the product or service
  • Continuous improvement of the product or service
  • Improved adaptability to change
  • More precise estimates for future efforts
  • Reduced waste
  • Continuously improving teams
  • Increased transparency of the work process
  • Better alignment with the big picture
  • Improved communication with external stakeholders (partners, clients, legislators, etc.)

Who wouldn’t want all of that?


Even a couple of these can transform a company and it is quite understandable why B2B people get excited at the prospect.

It sounds easy

Turning a company Agile sounds like an easy enough thing to do.

You pick a methodology or a framework, do a week of training and off you go.

You spend the next couple of weeks tinkering a bit and, before you know it, you are reaping all of the aforementioned benefits.

The reason why it may sound easy to become an Agile company is that much of it is very common sense and based on empiricism which makes sense in the world of business.

The only problem is that the world of business is far less common sense than we like to think. It is still just an ecosystem shaped and populated by human beings who are insecure, illogical, impulsive and intransigent.

Once the AI and automatization alarmists’ predictions come true, our machine overlords will easily adopt Agile. For us puny humans, it is more complicated.


Agile as the silver bullet

Due to its many potential benefits, its common sense foundations and the success some companies have seen, there are people who have started seeing Agile as something of a silver bullet.

The product is not very good or a year-and-a-half late to the party - Agile will solve it.

Marketing is not bringing in enough new leads - Agile will solve it.

Salespeople are super aggressive and burn out in months - Agile will solve it.

Projects are handled in an unprofessional manner and riddled with internal politics - Agile will solve it.


No matter what might be wrong with the company - Agile will solve it.


Agile is not a panacea and should never be considered as such. Sure, good Agile practices can remedy certain problems within a company, but it is sometimes not enough. Sometimes it can even be counterproductive.


There is no silver bullet in the world of business.


Some people make a nice living selling Agile

Another big reason why Agile is enjoying such hype is that some of it is intentionally generated by people with selfish agenda.

Agile Consultants

Simply google terms like ‘agile coaches’, ‘agile consultants’, ‘agile training’ and the like. You will find an entire marketplace made up of different organizations and agencies that are helping companies become Agile, almost invariably at a steep price.

It is essential not to be too cynical here and acknowledge the fact that many of those organizations and companies do a great job of helping companies turn Agile.

In fact, in large companies, they are necessary.

That being said, we should also recognize the fact that Agile consultant companies market Agile, contributing to the hype.


Moving Beyond the Hype

While Agile is nowhere as easy to adopt as the hype makes it to be and while it does not fit every organization and every situation, it can still work marvelously for B2B companies. In order for this to happen, there are a number of things that have to be covered.

The right fit

Before anything else, it is crucial to determine whether becoming Agile makes sense for your B2B company.

does agile work for you?

Source

Sometimes, Agile is simply not the right (or the best) approach for certain types of projects and situations that might be prevalent in a B2B company.

A good example of this would be a B2B business whose services are reactive in nature - maintenance, issue-solving, etc. Such companies do not operate in terms of projects and while some Agile practices may be welcome, it will not make too much sense.

Some B2B companies may operate with fixed-schedule, fixed-costs projects with established practices and processes that would only be disrupted by introducing Agile, outweighing any potential benefits.

In certain industries, employees are more focused on their individual efforts and results, like in sales. Once again, some Agile practices can be adopted to support the sales process, but in general, in situations without clearly defined teams, the Agile approach will be impractical.

 

Organizational buy-in

Becoming Agile demands a comprehensive change in the company culture that extends from the C-suite to interns and everyone in between (regardless of where it starts).

In other words, it requires full organizational buy-in.

It should be pointed out that the lack of organizational buy-in does not only describe cases where managers or the C-suite misunderstand Agile and continue practicing the same command-and-control way of management.

Employees can also be averse to Agile and there aren’t many things more detrimental to successful Agile transformation than pushing it on people.

It is essential to educate everyone in the company on what Agile entails, how it will help them be more successful and satisfied, and how the company plans to move forward.


Trial and error

Agile welcomes uncertainty and accepts failure, as long as this failure is used to inform future decisions and prevent the same failures down the line.

This is important to remember for a very simple reason - most newly Agile B2B companies will fail at agility at first. At the very least, they will find their initial results underwhelming.


This is perfectly expected and perfectly okay.


It takes a lot of trying and tinkering before a company can truly become Agile and start to reap the benefits.

In fact, there is no finish line when becoming Agile. It is a never-ending journey where the company becomes better and better over time, constantly finding the ways to push even further.

As part of this process, companies would also do well to incorporate a certain structured way of educating their people on Agile ideas, concepts and practices.

For many companies this can also involve hiring Agile coaches or consultants who can be of huge help. Once the people have got the hang of the basics, B2B companies can also start considering different Agile tools that can provide welcome support for their newly Agile teams.


Closing Word

There is a lot of hype surrounding Agile, there is no doubt about that.

Sometimes it is made out to be this Deus Ex solution for all possible problems. While it is essential to temper one’s expectations, an informed and honest adoption of the Agile ideas, culture and (subsequently) practices by a B2B company can be the best thing to happen to it in a while.

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AUTHOR: Jug Babic, VivifyScrum.

Topics: Management, Sales & Marketing