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Why everyone should understand Agile

05 December 2019Kaja Ziomek

Henry Ford, Kiichiro Toyoda, Walter Shewhart, and Edward Deming all have one thing in common.

You may know them as the fathers of the automotive industry, but they have one more thing in common. They all knew how to make people (and things) work better. They revolutionised the production process, introducing automation and making scale possible. In fact, they are responsible for the basis of modern economic and social systems in standardised mass production.

Henry Ford also changed the role of workers, transforming them from handmade craftsmen and giving them more flexible roles in which they could perform repetitive activities next to the assembly line. And the workers were paid more so they could afford the vehicles that they produced. Thanks to Ford and his spirit of innovation, the motor car became accessible to almost every ‘average’ citizen in the US.

This American know-how was an inspiration to Kiichiro Toyoda, who decided to invest the money that he made automating the loom in the then brand new automotive industry. He was responsible for creating Toyota’s unique production approach, in which the most important value is agility. Production is based on demand and focused on quality and respect for people and the environment.

Fun fact: both, Ford and Toyota were invested in the Automotive Hall of Fame, as was the third visionary and inventor in this group: William Edwards Deming. This innovative engineer and statistician brought the power of PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) to the automotive sector. Today we know it as the Deming Cycle which changed the face of quality control at the assembly line forever. His ideas were built on the classic work of Walter Andrew Shewhart, a physicist and statistician, and the father of statistical quality control.

Innovation, agility, quality, and improvement were at the forefront of these men’s minds and they happen to be the foundation of what we call Agile today.

What is Agile anyway?

You’ll have heard of the Waterfall model. It’s a process that breaks down project activities into linear sequential phases. It originated in the manufacturing and construction industries and was subsequently adapted to engineering design. It helps to structure the organisation of a project and puts emphasis on documentation.

However, it assumes that you know exactly where you are going at the outset, zero dependencies and no external influences or distractions. However, that’s rarely the reality of any project. We can’t always define requirements entirely at the start of the project and we may not be aware of future difficulties. The shortcomings of processes such as waterfall led to the creation of a new manifesto.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development lists the following principles of project management:

  • Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools
  • Working Software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to Change over following a plan

Properly used, the Agile approach ensures the effectiveness of a project, reduces costs and introduces creativity and innovation at the same time. It also strengthens relationships within the team and improves communication.

The values are supported by focusing on the development and training of people, proactively introducing a policy of openness and knowledge sharing. Cooperation with customers is not limited to signing the contract and waiting for the finished product; instead it becomes a partnership in pursuit of a common goal. It turns out that reducing a process to small, repetitive cycles brings great benefits for teams, managers and customers.

The Agile process leads to continuous improvement through short iterations and frequent quality checks. Just as Toyota envisioned! In Toyota’s factories workers can stop the production line at any time if they notice something is wrong. This builds a sense of responsibility and ownership which, in turn, greatly improves engagement.

How can Agile benefit marketers?

Agile has been adopted and developed in the area of Software Engineering quite naturally. The rapid development of technology forces people to adapt quickly and respond to changes taking place in the world around us. But now it’s not only the domain of the technology industry. The fact that other departments, such as marketing and sales, are recognising the potential of Agile is the natural course of things. Modern society demands fast changing projects and challenges that all require a new approach.

Agile methodologies were born out of an industrial revolution. When Toyota was achieving its success, everyone was watching closely and trying to copy. The same is happening today. Every industry is watching the powerful development of IT companies and want to incorporate their style of working into their daily processes. The ability to respond quickly to needs and changes, such as real-time marketing, pushes development towards faster turnaround. Meanwhile, an Agile approach allows you to check the quality of projects on an ongoing basis since they are managed in sprints with regular retrospective meetings.

We see it at Cognifide. Even non-technical teams are adapting this style of working to constantly learn and improve things. It allows all stakeholders to observe, influence, and benefit from constant feedback. Planning, measurability, and data-driven capability are fundamental for future success.

And it’s not only product development that benefits. It gives people a sense of freedom and promotes creativity and commitment. When people feel that they have a big impact on something, they become the owners of the process. Agile frees people to unleash their energy and innovation and allows them to achieve what would be impossible in a standard, enclosed and ordered environment.

Agile is agile!

Agile gives us daily practices, such as Kanban, Scrum, Adaptive, and Lean that provide tools to respond to issues easily and quickly. But Agile is agile itself. Everything that is written as a framework definition can be adapted to the needs of the team, product or client. A scheme proven to be right in one project isn't necessarily perfect for another. Each team, like every project or customer is different. So, we always spend time analysing each project individually and choosing the best solution for it. Agile doesn’t put you in a strait jacket.

Agile teams and their leaders

An agile approach supports well-being and development by its very nature. It empowers people to seek knowledge and to be responsible for their own development. It teaches a new style of project delivery and changes the role of the leader. An Agile leader is someone who serves the group instead of leading it. The role is focused on facilitation and supporting a self-organising team.

An agile leader usually emerges spontaneously from the group, so the role is open for a team member who wants to reskill to a more project-oriented part of the group. An agile team is the perfect, safe environment to find out more about your own leadership abilities. You can practice and invent and get instant feedback from other members of the group.

Agile is also a valuable approach when it comes to remote teams, distributed all over the world. Standard ways of management fail the exam when it comes to collaborating with a distributed team. The Agile methodology supports a remote-first approach ensuring equal rights of participation and communication throughout the team.

Where will Agile lead us in the next few decades? What challenges lie ahead of us? Will we work in the same way? I think it’s safe to assume that we don’t have all the answers to these questions. But if we focus on the key values of Agile; innovation, agility, quality, and improvement, we’ll have a good chance of success.

Hero Image by Daria Nepriakhina

Author: Kaja Ziomek
Published: 05 December 2019
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