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So What is Agile Really About?

December 8, 2015

A couple of months ago I wrote the blog post "What is Agile?". Although the term “Agile” in the context of software development is quite well known, the definitions vary. Therefore I shared the most common descriptions of Agile, for example:

  • Agile is a set of values and principles (Agile Manifesto)
  • Agile is a way of developing software that reminds us that although computers run the code, it’s people who create and maintain it (The Agile Samurai).
  • Agile is the courage to be honest enough to admit that building software is complex and it can’t be perfectly planned since requirements change.

Although these definitions offer some clarity, I still received some requests to explain what Agile really means in daily practice.

Last week, during a training about Leading Agile Transformations, I stumbled upon the perfect answer. During the training the 7 Principles of Continuous Innovation were briefly discussed. These principles are described in the book 'The Leader's Guide to Radical Management' by Steve Denning. To me, these 7 principles describe what Agile is all about.

The really cool stuff happened by watching the video 'Nordstrom Innovation Lab - Sunglass iPad App Case Study' afterwards. In this 7-minute video you'll see how the Nordstrom Innovation Lab created, tested and built an iPad app in just one week. In this short video every principle is put into practice. It's all about delighting clients, self-organizing teams, client-and value driven iterations, radical transparency, continuous (self) improvement and interactive communication.

Below I've shared the 7 principles of Continuous Innovation in some more detail. If you want to see what Agile is really about...

  1. Study the 7 principles of Continuous Innovation

  2. Check the video of the Nordstrom Innovation Lab

  3. Search for resemblances with the 7 principles and even connect it to the original Agile Manifesto.

When you're done, I hope you've seen what Agile means in practice. Of course, it would be even better when you'll experience it in real life. This video might encourage you to try an Agile experiment yourself!

The 7 Principles of Continuous Innovation

1. Delighting Clients

"Focus work on delighting the client"

  • "It all begins by getting the goal right: the purpose of work is to delight clients, not merely to produce goods or services or make money for shareholders."

  • "Once the goal becomes making money for the company, then people start thinking about making money for themselves, and collaboration and creativity tend to fall by the wayside."

  • "The key to an enduring future is to have a customer who is willing to buy goods and services both today and tomorrow. It's not about a transaction: it's about forging a relationship."

2. Self-Organizing Teams

"Do work through self-organizing teams"

  • "I think it's hard for those who have never been on a high performance team to understand just how cool it is." - Kristin Arnold

  • "When we work together with people who have different interpretations, perspectives, ways of solving problems, we are often able to solve problems that we wouldn't be able to solve alone."

  • "A complex problem, like discovering ways to delight clients, is best solved by a cognitively diverse group of people that is given responsibility for solving the problem, self-organizes, and works together to solve it."

3. Client-Driven Iterations

"Do work in client-driven iterations"

  • "That which is still small is easy to direct." - Lao Tzu

  • "Through client-driven iterations companies are able to keep inventory and work in process as small as possible and customize their product not only to meet the customer's original perceived needs but also to adjust it to meet any changes in those needs."

  • "Client-driven iterations improve productivity for the organization by focusing work on the elements that really add value and eliminating work that doesn't add value. They also eliminate unproductive planning time and reduce risk by providing management not with unreliable progress reports, but with evidence of whether actual progress is made."

4. Delivering Value to Clients in Each Iteration

"Deliver value to clients in each iteration"

  • "Client-driven iterations (and Radical Management) imply a mental revolution, a different way of thinking about work. The key to success is delivering value to clients at the end of each iteration."

  • "A small thing delivered sooner can delight more than a big thing delivered later."

  • "The primary focus is on performing at a level of quality that delights clients and then provides that sooner."

5. Radical Transparency

"Be totally open about impediments to improvement"

  • "The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off." - Gloria Steinem

  • "Achieving the complex goal of client delight requires total openness about any impediments to the work: everyone levels with everyone else."

  • "Radical Management accepts the inevitability of failure and puts arrangements in place to learn rapidly from failure and so progress toward success."

6. Continuous Self-Improvement

"Create a context for continuous self-improvement by the team"

  • "Continuous self-improvement is a deeply rooted set of values and attitudes focused on fixing problems as soon as they occur."

  • "Continuous self-improvement is fragile and therefore needs every day nurturing and attention."

  • "Continuous self-improvement is a top management responsibility."

7. Interactive Communication

"Interactively share stories, questions, conversations"
  • "The modern organization cannot be an organization of 'boss' and 'subordinate': it must be organized as a team of associates." - Peter Drucker
  • "Traditional managers speak to employees as employees, and power is the currency of communication."
  • "The Radical Manager communicates as one human being to another. Hierarchy is present but in the background."

In this blog post, I've shared my favorite definitions of Agile, the 7 principles of Continuous Innovation and the video by the Nordstrom Innovation Lab that put's it all into practice. I hope it helped you grasp the concept of Agile Software Development better. Questions? Feel free to contact me.

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