November 16, 2020

What Agility Really is About

A small and flexible team overcoming challenges.

 

Technology, globalization, the environment and society are more closely linked than ever before: Technological advances are driving globalization, changing our environment and influencing society which in turn calls for new solutions to these challenges. This cycle is happening at an increasing pace and is making our world ever more complex. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one current example of a change with complex global consequences.

With all this complexity, we personally feel how difficult it is to keep up with the speed of change. It's easy to feel lost. As change agents we see other people and companies feeling the same way.

That’s why people are looking for ways to better deal with this complexity, to make better use of opportunities, to control risks more effectively and keep or improve their competitiveness. This is where agility comes into play and is on everyone’s lips these days. The Agile Manifesto will soon be 20 years old, and Scrum was first introduced 25 years ago. Yet, many people and companies still struggle to increase their agility. You don’t have to be an Agile Coach to see this, you can see this from just being a normal customer to almost any company. We believe this is a great opportunity to present some tips on how you can increase the agility of your team and organization.

Before that, we’d like to create a common understanding of the term "agility" and demystify this buzzword. We developed this definition, which we think will help us do this.

 

Agility is the skill to develop customer value from customer needs flexibly, creatively and quickly, while controlling risks in complex environments.

 

Agility is not an innate talent, but a skill that anyone who is willing to work on themselves can learn and grow. Agility means focusing on customers and their needs, developing solutions for them and as a result creating customer value. The term "develop" is often misunderstood and equated with "IT" or "programming" but really means that a solution will emerge from the process of creating it.

Agile teams are likely to face change during the development of a solution. For example, customer needs, technologies and market conditions may change - or the understanding of them may change. Agile teams react flexibly and quickly and try to use these changes in a way that will increase customer value.

Especially at the beginning of product development, both the solutions and the customer needs may not be fully known and understood. This could be because you’re working on a new solution involving technologies you haven’t worked with before or because customers often only learn what they really need when a product is put into their hands. The sooner agile teams can provide their customers with a usable, potentially valuable solution, the sooner they can learn together with their customers whether that solution really has customer value. That’s why agile teams develop products in short, frequent intervals and deliver increments to their customers early and continuously. That way, they optimize value and control their risk of wasting resources on something that eventually is of little value to the customer.

Whether you already use any agile practices today or you don’t, we’d like to give you 15 tips on how you can increase the agility of your team and organization.

 

Tips #1–5 for More Agility

Tip #1: Know why

Why do you want to become more agile?

You need a good answer to this question that all participants understand. Because to become more agile, everyone will have to work on themselves, their attitudes and the culture and work environment of their organization. This change will come with uncertainty and maybe even anxiety, so it’s important for everyone to understand why they are doing it.

Answer the following questions together with those affected by this change: Why should we want to become more agile? What might happen if we don’t?

 

Tip #2: Focus

Focus yourself!

Focus on your customers and their needs. On your most important goal. On fewer goals, projects and tasks at once. This gives you the freedom to develop creative solutions more quickly, to learn earlier what is really valuable for your customers, to react more flexibly to new insights and changes, and to reflect on how you create value and improve that.

Start by creating more focus at a strategic level by setting fewer different goals, so that your entire company can concentrate on fewer initiatives at the same time. Don’t make maxing out your or your employees’ capacity your first goal. This would be as useful as trying to utilize the capacity of roads to 100%. Do we really want our roads maxed out? This will lead to congestion, stress, delays, risks and even accidents. Instead, reduce the number of projects to a level that will allow you to move quickly and flexibly.

 

Tip #3: Transparency

Create and maintain transparency!

More is unknown than known in complex situations. Since you can’t completely predict a solution and the way to it, you need a high degree of transparency to measure value and progress. Be transparent about what you have already done, what you are currently working on and what you expect to work on next. Deliver a usable part of a product in short, regular cycles and let your customers use it and evaluate it. This is the best way for you and your customers to learn what really is valuable. Visualize what you are currently working on and what you will probably work on next and make this information transparent to your stakeholders. Also, create transparency for you and your stakeholders about what is slowing you down or holding you up. Then work together to overcome these obstacles.

 

Tip #4: Outcomes over Outputs

Determine progress and success based on customer outcomes!

Many teams and companies measure progress and success by their work results (output), e.g., product features. Whether these features are valuable to customers usually only becomes known later, when customers start to use them. If you only measure your output, you might create an illusion of progress and success where there actually isn’t any because your output might later prove to be of no significant value.

Instead, first ask yourself what outcome you want to achieve for your customers. One example: Your desired outcome is that users of the product x also buy the accessory y. Now think about what output could achieve this outcome. By looking at it this way, you will discover new possibilities and realize that this output may not be the best way to achieve the desired outcome. Create transparency about the big assumptions you make and run experiments to validate them. Ultimately, measure progress and success by observing whether the outcome you want happens.

 

Tip #5: Deliver and Learn

Learn early and regularly together with your customers about what really is valuable for them!

Most companies and teams develop products for too long in private and deliver them to their customers too late. As a result, they learn only very late whether the product really meets the needs of their customers. This is because customers only learn whether a product really meets their needs when they start using it. This means the developers of the product only know if they created value when the customer uses their product. This in turn means that all the work up to that point is a value assumption. This is a considerable risk, as a lot of time and effort is invested in ideas that may later turn out to not have value.

So, check your assumptions early and continuously by involving your customers early during development and learn from their feedback. This way you reduce your risk and at the same time continuously increase the customer value of your product. We believe this tip is also helpful to many companies and teams that are convinced they are already agile. Although most of these companies develop their product in short cycles, they actually involve their customers too late and thus miss the point of agility.

 

Tips #6–10:

In our next article we will present five more tips for you about agility.

 

This doesn’t work for us!

At this point you might think: “That’s not possible with us! We don’t have the time for that! We need a real agile method that helps us!

We get this reaction a lot and our answer is: No matter which agile practice you use — Scrum, Kanban, Design Thinking, Lean Startup etc. — they are just “tools” for more focus, higher transparency, stronger customer focus and better collaboration. They simply show how well you can currently turn customer needs into customer value and give you clues on how to improve. However, these tools don’t do the work for you. They don’t create the necessary environment for you within which agility can grow and teams can thrive. You’ll still have to do this hard work yourself.

 

Do you need help?

Then let’s talk. In our interactive keynote speech “About Agile & Outcomes” we will give you a deeper understanding of complexity and agility. In our hands-on training “The Agile Experience” you will gain first practical experience with the most important agile strategies, frameworks and practices.