If you work in digital business, then chances are you’ve heard the term ‘agile’ bandied about more than once. In fact, recent research found that 97% of organisations are now practicing agile development methods, so chances are that at least some people in your organization are working in an agile way.
But, if you’re relatively new to the term, you may be wondering exactly what agile working is and what the pros and cons are for your business. We’re here to help!
What is the ‘agile approach’?
In essence, the agile approach involves breaking processes down into incremental pieces. So rather than trying to do everything in one go (the ‘waterfall approach’), agile teams divide their tasks into discrete modules which they test and perfect individually before continuing.
Agile developed in the IT industry, where it is used to build adaptive and personalised software which can respond in real-time to consumer feedback. Software is delivered continuously, in fortnightly cycles known as ‘iterations’, rather than as a single (and unchangeable) fait accompli.
We could today describe Charles Dickens’ method of novel-writing as ‘agile’. Rather than using the ‘waterfall’ approach of writing a book all in one go and publishing it in a single volume, Dickens and other writers of his day would release a chapter or so at a time, in magazines and newspapers. The response (and collaboration) of the audience and literary colleagues would be taken into account as the novel developed.
Although agile will not work for every business or department (workable increments are, quite simply, impossible for some industries to deliver), agile methods are increasingly being deployed across a range of functions, beyond software development. From startups to big corporations, businesses are adopting agile modes of management, project development, and more. So what are the big advantages and disadvantages of this way of working?
- Rapid delivery: Agile methods allow you to deliver workable increments to your clients very quickly. They may not be perfect increments, but the understanding is that you will build upon these foundations on an ongoing basis. If you need to get something up and running fast, agile is a good way to go about it.
- Adaptable: Because the increments are small, it’s very easy for projects to change direction and/or otherwise adapt to altering circumstances without undoing much of what has gone before.
- Collaborative: Agile working requires a lot of feeding back and forth between teams, clients, and customers. This makes for a collaborative environment in which silo walls are broken down and collective creativity often flourishes.
- Quick problem detection: You’re testing your increments on the go, so it quickly becomes apparent when problems crop up. Even better, the fragmented nature of what you’re doing means that you can usually pinpoint precisely where the problem lies and what’s causing it, so as to fix the issue with the next incremental cycle.
- Transparent: You’re constantly showing your workings with the agile approach. Nothing can be hidden in the developmental archives – it’s all out there, in the open, happening before your very eyes.
- Continuous improvement: When operating a waterfall approach, you can only evaluate performance once the project has completed development and is out in the marketplace. In order to improve, you must produce an entirely new and enhanced version. Given the pace of modern society, this isn’t as viable an option as it once was. The agile approach allows you to evaluate and improve on the hoof, in a continuous real-time process.
- Tricky paradigm shift: Some businesses and industries lend themselves naturally to the agile approach. For others, however, shifting from a sequential and schedule-bound mode to the more freeform agile approach can be a difficult change to manage. Teething troubles are inevitable.
- Lack of specifics: The ad-hoc, reactive nature of the agile method makes it hard to pin down specifics like deadlines and costs. This can lead to sloppy budgeting, poor timing, and a general dearth of practical boundaries to work to.
- Neglect of paperwork: The agile approach often requires quick shifts from one aspect of a project to another. This may leave little time for doing the proper paperwork at each stage. Record-keeping is important, but it is often a casualty of agile working methods.
- Ephemeral planning: The agile ethos is in many ways more reactive than proactive. It’s about responding to issues and feedback in real-time. For many, this means that proper planning gets left behind in the rush to react, adapt, and improve. You need a strong core vision so that your overarching plan doesn’t get lost in the ongoing process.
- Lack of overall cohesion: All of this comes together to represent a lack of overall cohesion when using the agile approach. While it is perfectly possible to be both agile and cohesive, it takes strong leadership and a consistent strategy to keep everyone and every increment working towards the same vision. It’s all too easy for the continuous process to run away with itself, and for the goals to get lost in the details.
Is the agile approach right for you?
The answer to this question depends a lot on the kind of business you’re running and the kind of projects you’re involved in. Agile tends to suit smaller, more adaptive businesses with strong core teams and a fluid communication style. It becomes less and less effective as companies scale, largely because the mechanisms of management become more unwieldy and processes get codified. However, it’s not impossible for larger businesses to implement agile methods, and many are doing so.