Agile is a mindset that consists of 4 values and 12 principles, which give birth to an infinite number of practices. Agile began in 2001, when 17 software development thought leaders got snowed in at a ski resort in the mountains of Utah. Instead of going out skiing, the group met up in a room at the hotel and started talking about how each built software and worked with their clients.
Discovering a surprising number of similarities between their ways of working, they wrote them down on a manifesto and signed their names on it. The agile movement quickly spread among software developers and companies, large and small, in the tech sector. Over time, agile grew from a programming movement to a mindset for operating companies, managing projects, and building products.
The agile mindset is about building self-sufficient and self-organized teams that focus on delivering customer value in an iterative and incremental way. Iterative as work is done in short cycles called “iterations” and incremental as each cycle results in done work items part of an “increment.”
According to the agile manifesto, agile practitioners value:
- People and conversations over processes and tools
- Working products over slide decks and lengthy documents
- Collaboration on the “Why” and “What” over negotiation of contracts
- Responding to change over following outdated plans
That’s not to say agile practitioners don’t value the items on the right at all. But they understand that customer satisfaction and business value come, first and foremost, from the items on the left.
The agile mindset is applicable to any industry and for companies and teams of any size, which is why it’s as much a leadership paradigm and organizational design model as it is a way for people on the field to get work done.
An agile mindset can help a company succeed by making it more adaptive, innovative, and resilient. With its iterative and incremental approach to planning and delivery, agile is about creating a company culture focused on self organization, scientific experimentation, and openness to change.
Principles of the Agile Mindset
Agile, as we saw, is a mindset that consists of 4 values and 12 principles. Though the original 12 principles are created by software developers for software developers, each of them can be adapted to apply for areas beyond software development.
Here’s one way to do that:
- The highest priority of an agile company is to satisfy customers by providing them with valuable products and services.
- By welcoming change at any stage of a plan, an agile company becomes resilient to disruption and adaptive to shifts in its environment.
- An agile company consists of a network of self-organized teams that work in short cycles, 2 weeks to 2 months each, with a preference for shorter cycles.
- An agile company has no silos between divisions and teams. Instead, work is done cross-functionally. Diverse agile teams are the rule, not the exception to it.
- Work in agile companies is done by motivated individuals who are given the environment, support, and trust they need to get work done.
- In an agile company, individuals and teams acknowledge that the most efficient way to convey information is through face-to-face conversation.
- The primary measure of progress in an agile company is products and services that work. The focus, then, becomes on getting to a good definition of “working.”
- Agile is about sustainable progress. The sponsors, members, and customers of an agile team should be able to keep a constant pace and focus on the long term.
- Continuous attention to excellence and design enhances agility. Neglecting the quality of work done is like using a credit card; the debt piles up over time.
- Agile is as much about what to do as it is about what not to do. An agile company can only sponsor so many teams, products, and features at a time. Choose well.
- The best plans, designs, and outcomes come from teams whose members have the knowledge and experience required — and are given the freedom to self-organize.
- The key to getting agile right is pace and continuous improvement. At regular intervals, the company, divisions, and teams reflect on their progress and lessons learned.
How do you adopt and apply the agile principles in your company? Do you interpret any of them differently? Have you created new principles of your own?
Let me and the rest of the readers of this post know in the comments form below.
How the Agile Mindset Works (A Real-World Example)
To a large extent, the agile mindset is based on empiricism.
Empiricism is a philosophical school of thought which says that knowledge is “best obtained through sensory experience.” An agile team starts with an idea; a hypothesis that needs to be proven out. Before the idea is proven out, it doesn’t make sense for the team — and the company that sponsors it — to make an all-in investment in it.
This is why the agile team starts working iteratively and incrementally, and sets out to build the so-called Minimum Viable Product (“MVP”). An MVP is an early version of a product with “just enough” features to be usable by first adopters, who can then give feedback (or whose usage can be measured), allowing the agile team to verify their hypothesis and decide on a way forward.
Very often, the learnings from the MVP are the critical moment when the team decides whether to continue working on a product or feature, or invest their time and effort on something else that has potential to deliver higher value. This is how the National Public Radio (“NPR”) uses agile to create and test new programming. The radio network produces multiple radio shows with small budgets with the goal to test out which ones resonate with their audiences before deciding whether or not to invest in their further growth.
Before NPR adopted an agile approach to the creation of new programming, the radio network had a series of multi-million dollar flops. Instead of creating MVPs of new radio shows and testing them out with their listeners on the radio waves and on the Internet, each idea would go through a comprehensive internal pitching and evaluation process. The problem was that what appealed to the network’s executives didn’t always resonate with their audience.
An agile mindset can help companies reduce the cost of making mistakes by grounding their strategies and plans in the principles of empiricism and applying an economic view. In empiricism, the best way to determine if something is true or not is to create a hypothesis and test it in the field. When you apply an economic view, this type of tests are best done with a minimum (or minimum viable) investment of capital and time.
Agile companies, in other words, only invest in product ideas after they have validated them. To validate them, they apply the agile mindset and build self-sufficient and self-organized teams that work in short cycles to deliver working products iteratively and incrementally, seeking out feedback from customers and getting insight through measurement.
With time, this approach helps agile companies to achieve sustained competitive advantage by investing their resources on products, services, and projects that have the potential to deliver the most value for their customers (or, in the case of non-profit organizations, their community).
Spreading the Agile Mindset Throughout the Organization
The agile mindset starts from the top. Many companies go through agile transformation and give little-to-no agile leadership training to their executive and senior management teams. As an outcome, the organization builds a network of agile teams asked to meet arbitrary deadlines and rigid milestones set by management.
Agile is about accelerating learning by shortening the feedback loop at all levels of an organization — including management. Which requires a different approach to strategic management and operational planning. Basecamp, a company behind one of the leading project management and team communication tools on the market, is an example for a company that has successfully applied the agile mindset at all levels.
In Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters, Basecamp’s Head of Product Strategy Ryan Singer writes about how his company works in six-week cycles called “bets.” Before each six-week cycle, the Basecamp team holds a planning session called a “betting table” where stakeholders decide on pitches for what to do next.
“If we decide to bet on a pitch, it goes into the next cycle to build. If we don’t, we let it go. There’s nothing we need to track or hold on to,” Singer says. “What if the pitch was great, but the time just wasn’t right? Anyone who wants to advocate for it again simply tracks it independently — their own way — and then lobbies for it six weeks later.”
Instead of management deciding what to do next and cascading their plans down the team, any individual or team at Basecamp can formulate a pitch and present it at the betting table. Instead of creating multi-quarter roadmaps and multi-year plans, everyone in the organization agrees that on the table there are only options, not commitments and plans, for what to bet on next.
Next comes the organization’s design and operating model. In Agile Compendium, consulting firm McKinsey & Company advocates for building a flat organization that consists of networked teams with flexible resource allocation, organized around a shared vision, mission, and goals. The “new” way of work for agile companies is one centered around iteration and experimentation with the goal to achieve greater outcomes and use lessons learned for continuous improvement.
In an agile company, the role of management changes from sole decision makers and drivers of command-and-control to servant leaders and supporters of self-sufficient and self-organized agile teams. The new skillset of management in the modern organization, then, becomes actionable decision-making and effective capital allocation.
The role of the individual and team also changes. Individuals and teams are now expected to define their ways of work and self-organize around achieving the shared vision, mission, and goals of an organization. They are empowered to achieve results, but also become accountable for their own success.
The Bottom Line
The agile mindset creates a new paradigm for how companies are run and how work inside them is done.
Over time, companies that adopt the agile mindset become more innovative and resilient as they accelerate the feedback look and seek out continuous improvement.
This requires a change in mindset for leaders and employees alike, where the latter let go of command-control and the former take over accountability for their way of work and outcomes.