Sprinting to success: the 6 superpowers of agile, and why your company should be considering it.
There’s much buzz around agile these days, and with good reason. Organisations that adopt agile ways of working tend to see increases in time to market, fewer product defects, increased productivity and improved employee engagement.
In my experience, one of the inhibitors of agile adoption is that it is perceived as complex and inaccessible by non-technical leaders – especially for those in a non-software development environment. Agile practitioners sometimes tend to throw around terms like scrum, retrospectives, tribes and demos. The list of agile technical jargon is immense.
A few months ago, I found myself presenting to about 50 leaders over Zoom. They had asked me to attend their monthly leadership meeting to deliver a presentation on Agile and why so many organisations were adopting it outside of technical functions. I started strong, then found myself unconsciously diving into the jargon of agile. I could virtually see their eyes glaze over. I had missed the mark – it wasn’t an excellent presentation.
The trouble with being a practitioner is that you often forget that not everyone has your vocabulary. When you’re in the trenches, it’s hard to see the bigger picture and realise that while agile may be a great thing for teams, nothing will change if leaders can’t understand it.
I licked my wounds and went back to the drawing board. It was time to find some new terminology and come up with an approach that spoke their language. I sat in a conference room with my team. I asked, “How do you describe the benefits of agile – without mentioning any agile terminology?”. Like typical consultants, much coffee and mentos were then consumed. One of the team then said, “A better question is how do we make this approachable and easy for leaders to understand – getting to the real underlying benefits?”. After about an hour of brainstorming, we came up with what we believe are the six “superpowers” of agile – linking them to the behaviours and practices that teams need to implement.
A few weeks later, I was back in front of that same client. In preparation for their transition to a scaled agile operating model, I was helping to deliver a town hall presentation. This time I could tell we had hit the mark. They were engaged and started to connect the dots on why agile ways of working make a difference to teams, organisations, and customers.
This blog post will cover some of the main benefits that make agile so great – without using technical jargon or going into the gory details of agile operating models. If you are an experienced agile practitioner, then this article is not for you. If you are a leader interested in exploring and understanding the underlying benefits of agile, then read on.
Predicable value delivery
One of the significant advantages of agile is predictable delivery. Traditional projects deliver value upon completion. There are many challenges with this approach. Agile is different because it promotes the concept of incremental delivery of value. This means that businesses can predict when they will receive value. Hence, the company and its stakeholders have a clear idea of what to expect. It does this via the concept of “sprints”. A sprint is a short period (usually between 2-4 weeks) where teams work on small work packages to deliver value and demonstrate progress.
Reduced organisational risk
When a team or organisation begins a project, it is almost impossible to know everything required at the start. In any project, there is a degree of uncertainty – and this uncertainty leads to risk. The challenge with traditional approaches to project delivery is that they rely on a “stage-gate” approach. Stage gates fix requirements and designs too early, making adjustments too late and costly as new facts emerge. This approach delays learning.
By contrast, agile reduces risk by embracing the uncertainty inherent in any project. It does this by rolling with changes and making adjustments as they emerge, leading to a more flexible organisation that can quickly adapt when new information becomes available. The iterative approach built into agile (by sprints) facilitates learning. It allows for continuous, cost-effective adjustments towards an optimal solution. This means that as new knowledge emerges, you can correct your course every 2-4 weeks – moving closer towards the optimal solution.
Empowering your employees
One of the core agile principles agile is that everyone on the team, from the top down, is treated as an expert. When team members are empowered and given responsibility for their work, they become more engaged in what they do because it’s no longer just a job. Instead, they feel they have more input into what work is completed day-to-day. Agile also moves critical decisions closer to the customer, empowering knowledge workers who do the actual work to plan what is important and deliver work. Ultimately this leads to increased employee and customer satisfaction.
Agile makes it easier for teams and organisations as a whole to be more transparent. Increased transparency means that not only do teams have access to information about what is happening – but rather anyone can see how work is progressing. This transparency helps foster accountability and increases trust in the team, which makes for better collaboration.
Teams use many techniques and tools to drive transparency, from daily stand-ups to visualising work through Kanban boards. A daily stand-up is a short, daily meeting where team members discuss what they have done and what work is left to do – and most importantly, what is currently blocking them.
Agile is also well known for the visualisation of work via Kanban boards. A Kanban board is a visual representation of the work happening in a team. You can see what tasks are waiting or being completed. This gives everyone on the team visibility into how much work needs to be done and by which person.
The marketplace continues to be demanding – with new startups disrupting established players and increasing customer demands. To address this, organisations are constantly seeking new ways and best practices to improve. Part of the reason I love agile is that continuous improvement is baked right into the process. Continuous improvement is achieved in an agile team through the use of retrospectives. At the end of every sprint, teams reflect on what went well and where they can improve. Through this process, any team member (including managers) can offer suggestions on how work can be done more efficiently or productively to achieve better results next sprint. This “inspect & adapt” approach means that teams can learn from their mistakes and progress in a more sustainable way.
Increased alignment between teams
I have seen individual teams trying their best; however, the overall organisation is not aligned to deliver effectively. When implemented at scale, Agile can help align teams through techniques such as Program Increment (PI) planning. PI planning is about aligning with the agile team’s shared goal of delivering value. This means that there is agreement on what work is valuable in an agile organisation and how it should be delivered instead of having independent projects with no alignment (which can often lead to duplication of effort).
Agile is an emerging trend in business, and for a good reason. It’s been successful with global companies such as Walmart and GE. Still, many smaller organisations have also found agile ways of working beneficial. Some benefits include increasing value delivery predictability while reducing organisational risk and empowering teams by making them more aligned. It might be time for you to start experimenting with a few essential practices that can help make agile work well within your own company culture. My recommendation would be to begin with inspecting and adapting your work every two weeks. This drives immediate benefit by shortening the learning cycles inside your organisation.
Jamie Pride is a Partner at Humanly Agile, an organisational design and change management consultancy that helps clients design workplaces where their people can thrive. He has over 27 years of experience in business transformation and is highly passionate about the future of work. His areas of expertise include organisational design, enterprise agility, people strategy & employee experience. If you need help on your agile journey, then don’t hesitate to contact us.