The majority of Agile use cases involve technology projects. After all, tech companies in the early 2000s—think Google, Apple, Shopify, Amazon, dot-com start-ups—were the first adopters of agile work methods. But that’s about to change. Increasingly, companies are realizing that the benefits of agile can also be reaped in business and corporate settings.
Here’s a quick example. Not too long ago, I worked for a fast fashion retailer that had product development cycles of nine months. There was a very tight calendar with an orchestrated sequence of activities that had to happen to make a clothing collection come to life. These ranged from trends research, product design, sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, and warehousing to stocking products on the shelves. Given that manufacturing occurred in China and transportation lead times to Canada were fixed, nobody thought this timeframe could be reduced by much. But by applying Scrum methodology, a type of agile framework, we were able to cut the product development cycle from nine to three months!
So what is this agile magic all about?
Implementing Agile for Business
Here are five things you’ll need to do in order to implement the agile framework in a business setting.
Set up small, cross-functional teams that are empowered, accountable, self-organized, fact-driven, and—ideally—dedicated full-time to a project. Staff each team with no more than seven people, and stick to the same rule for meetings. This will force you to think carefully about the skill-sets you need to deliver your objectives. The retailer I described earlier once included upwards of 30 people in product reviews to give their input about clothing collections. You can only imagine how unproductive that consensus-driven process was, with constant back-and-forth’s that slowed down the process and more meeting follow-ups being scheduled than decisions made.
Define clear roles for each member of your agile teams. There is one product owner who holds the vision for the project, sets priorities, and collaborates with stakeholders as needed. That role is typically held by a leader with decision-making authority; the most successful product owners are servant-leaders who empower their team instead of telling them how to do the work. No co-ownership, ok? There can only be one owner accountable for the overall project. There is one Scrum Master or agile coach whose role is to help the team best use agile to deliver the project, remove roadblocks, and facilitate agile events (daily stand-ups, sprint planning, sprint reviews, sprint retrospective, and so on). Finally, there are between three to five team members who are accountable to deliver chunks of work on time, on scope, and on quality.
Embrace customer input as a core value. Agile is a customer-centric approach. It incorporates customer input throughout each project to validate progress and iterate based on customer feedback. The last thing you want is people making decisions based on their own biases as a consumer instead of the target customer’s needs. Too often, I heard employees at the fast fashion retailer say things like, “I don’t like this piece of clothing and wouldn’t buy it for myself.” Of course, if you’re an executive in your 40s and your target customer is a teenager, that’s not necessarily a good gauge for success! Technology has made obtaining customer feedback easier than ever before—I often find myself answering a 1-minute poll on Facebook for the brands I follow—and it’s a great way to create lasting customer engagement.
Adopt a fast project cadence so that you deliver in frequent increments. The philosophy behind agile is to move quickly so you can “fail fast,” measure, learn, and improve your next delivery. Typically, project work is segmented into two-week “sprints,” so that key stakeholders can rapidly validate the increment you delivered. In the agile world, delivering a working output upon which you iterate is more important than delivering a perfect output or extensive documentation. How many project reviews have you sat through where the final output—after too many months and significant investments—was not what you had in mind at the start of a project? With agile, it’s difficult to experience this scenario, given the bi-weekly validations and clear “definitions of done” that are established for every deliverable at the beginning of a two-week sprint. The agile framework aims to eliminate confusion on what the expectations are. And in the unlikely event the team did not deliver against the “definition of done” that was expected, you’re only out a two-week investment, not a months-long affair!
Provide complete transparency into your project’s progress. The self-organized team can choose to create a simple physical agile board where they keep track of what’s in the backlog, what’s in progress, what’s blocked, and what’s done. Anybody walking by the team’s area can understand within seconds where people are in the workflow. Alternatively, if the team is operating virtually in multiple locations, they can use online tools such as Trello (a user-friendly tool that’s perfect for first-time agile practitioners) or Jira from Atlassian (a helpful tool for projects with a strong technology component or for experienced agile practitioners). The agile team will typically meet daily for a 15-minute stand-up where they’ll review their agile board and discuss if there are any roadblocks impacting their progress, so you know almost immediately if there’s an obstacle to be removed. No need to wait for the traditional weekly project status that most corporations use for their projects!
In our practice at L&C Advisors, we use the agile framework when working with clients on complex business strategy issues, so you can see that agile can be applied to the business world as much as it has been applied to the tech world.
To learn more about the agile process and scrum, check out Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland.
Need an Agile coach or consultant? Contact us to learn more.
This post first appeared at L&C Advisors.
Julia Bouvet is a business strategy consultant and a Certified Scrum Master (PSM I) who helps companies solve business problems and maximize profitability. Before she joined L&C Strategic Advisory Consultants, a boutique management consulting firm based in Montreal, Quebec and Toronto, Julia worked for A.T. Kearney, serving clients like Walmart, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Best Buy.