What is Agile, and what can you learn from it as a non-tech business?

Let's start with the basics - what exactly is Agile?

Agile is a manifesto, a movement and a methodology that has been adopted over the past twenty years to become the most widely-used process for software development. The original manifesto was written by a group of developers who strove to write better software by focussing on 'macro' rather than 'micro' control over the process.

The key tenets of Agile are all about good time management and communication. The development team splits up any huge task into work sequences known as 'sprints'. Having broken down the project into smaller, more manageable parts, one can then rank the importance of each part to the whole, and continually monitor each part for failures and successes. This simplified methodology is now estimated to be used in a third of all software projects, but could it also be applied in a non-tech business?

How does this benefit me?

If you don't build software, you may be wondering what relevance Agile has to your business. As with any successful working practice, there is plenty to be learned from what that group of developers originally set out to achieve, and how they went about it. What's great about Agile is its capacity to be moulded and reformulated to cater to specific needs. Whatever the context, most companies are looking for ways to be more efficient in their work. You can pick and choose from the basic principles of the methodology and relate them back to your enterprise.

It's important to note that you are never done analysing, designing, building and testing on an Agile project. So long as there is work to be done, and resources that can be put towards it, these activities will continue to enhance the overall value of the project throughout the process.

Examining the manifesto

Below are the four fundamental values of the Agile Manifesto. In each case, the end product is important to virtually any growing business - we have suggested alternative ways of describing each theme.

The Agile Manifesto In Other Words...
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools Encourage direct engagement from your team rather than using complex project management tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation Simplify and streamline processes - spend more time on products and services, and less time on admin
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation Feedback from real users is more important than making profit from a sale, at least at first
Responding to change over following a plan Constantly experiment, learn rapidly and adapt to what you learn

Individuals and interactions

Software systems aren't built alone, and neither is any complex business proposition. Developing a product is a group activity, and to do it well, you need to cooperate effectively. As a business grows, it's easy for individuals within it to become isolated working on their specific tasks. While it's tempting to save time by formalising strict processes to manage projects, there is no substitute for making time to share thoughts face to face. "Interactions over processes" is transferable to any business because of the emphasis on communication.

When dividing up responsibilities and tasks, communication is pivotal to stay on top of the project and ensure that it continues to reflect your vision. If your team have regular appointments to share their daily agendas and long term goals, it will help everyone better understand what's going on behind the scenes.

Working software

"Working software over comprehensive documentation" is all about focusing on priorities and streamlining what needs to be done. Every product has its 'must haves' and 'nice to haves', and trying to achieve both at once can often mean doing both badly. The Agile method forces you to find ways to simplify while staying on top of the activity that has to happen. That's not to say that documentation or administrative work should be abandoned entirely, but is the time being spent on each task proportional to the value it will add to the finished product?

Customer collaboration

One approach to keep value at the front of your mind is to get potential customers using your product or service as early as possible. Don't get bogged down in making sure that it's perfect, and try not to worry about how you're going to make money just yet. Customer satisfaction is the most important factor in any business becoming successful, so make it your focus.

Once people have seen what you have to give them, they'll tell you what they like, what they don't, and what is most important to them. Ensure that you give them the channels to communicate with you, and as you continue incorporate their advice you'll be able to charge more, safe in the knowledge that your next customers will want what you're selling.

Responding to change

The world of technology might move quickly, but what industry isn't? Responding to change can and should be a vital part of every business strategy - it's hard to work efficiently without continuously growing, innovating and being ready for the unseen. Change is the only certainty, so project plans have to be designed to be malleable and allow room for it.

Putting the Agile method into action

You may be thinking, 'how will I apply these theoretical concepts to my business every day?'. Don't worry; each of the values are important, but you don't have to implement them all at once. As long as you communicate how and why you're doing things along the way, your team should be on board, and you'll find your efficiency improving rapidly to help your company succeed.

If you're an established organisation keen to bring a more innovative mindset into your workplace, find out more about how you can work with our support team and members to facilitate change.