The team is cross-functional and includes all the skills necessary to complete its tasks. It manages itself and is strictly accountable for every aspect of the work. The person in this role usually comes from a business function and divides his or her time between working with the team and coordinating with key stakeholders: customers, senior executives, and business managers.
Then he or she continually and ruthlessly rank-orders that list according to the latest estimates of value to internal or external customers and to the company. A process facilitator often a trained scrum master guides the process. This person protects the team from distractions and helps it put its collective intelligence to work. The process is transparent to everyone. They resolve disagreements through experimentation and feedback rather than endless debates or appeals to authority. They test small working prototypes of part or all of the offering with a few customers for short periods of time.
The team then brainstorms ways to improve future cycles and prepares to attack the next top priority. This approach worked fine in stable environments, but not when software markets began to change rapidly and unpredictably.
In that scenario, product specifications were outdated by the time the software was delivered to customers, and developers felt oppressed by bureaucratic procedures. Projects should be built around motivated individuals who are given the support they need and trusted to get the job done. Teams should abandon the assembly-line mentality in favor of a fun, creative environment for problem solving, and should maintain a sustainable pace.
Employees should talk face-to-face and suggest ways to improve their work environment. Management should remove impediments to easier, more fruitful collaboration.
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Innovators who can see their results in real market conditions will learn faster, be happier, stay longer, and do more-valuable work. Teams should experiment on small parts of the product with a few customers for short periods, and if customers like them, keep them. Team members should resolve arguments with experiments rather than endless debates or appeals to authority. Most detailed predictions and plans of conventional project management are a waste of time and money. And people should be happy to learn things that alter their direction, even late in the development process.
That will put them closer to the customer and make for better results. Time to market and cost are paramount, and specifications should evolve throughout the project, because customers can seldom predict what they will actually want. Rapid prototyping, frequent market tests, and constant collaboration keep work focused on what they will ultimately value. Compared with traditional management approaches, agile offers a number of major benefits, all of which have been studied and documented. It increases team productivity and employee satisfaction. It minimizes the waste inherent in redundant meetings, repetitive planning, excessive documentation, quality defects, and low-value product features.
By engaging team members from multiple disciplines as collaborative peers, it broadens organizational experience and builds mutual trust and respect. Finally, by dramatically reducing the time squandered on micromanaging functional projects, it allows senior managers to devote themselves more fully to higher-value work that only they can do: creating and adjusting the corporate vision; prioritizing strategic initiatives; simplifying and focusing work; assigning the right people to tasks; increasing cross-functional collaboration; and removing impediments to progress.
Agile is not a panacea. It is most effective and easiest to implement under conditions commonly found in software innovation: The problem to be solved is complex; solutions are initially unknown, and product requirements will most likely change; the work can be modularized; close collaboration with end users and rapid feedback from them is feasible; and creative teams will typically outperform command-and-control groups.
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In our experience, these conditions exist for many product development functions, marketing projects, strategic-planning activities, supply-chain challenges, and resource allocation decisions. They are less common in routine operations such as plant maintenance, purchasing, sales calls, and accounting. And because agile requires training, behaviorial change, and often new information technologies, executives must decide whether the anticipated payoffs will justify the effort and expense of a transition.
Agile innovation also depends on having a cadre of eager participants. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
OpenView Venture Partners, a firm that has invested in about 30 companies, took this path. He found that they fit some activities more easily than others. Agile worked well for strategic planning and marketing, for instance, where complex problems can often be broken into modules and cracked by creative multidisciplinary teams.
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Some of them immediately loved the idea of implementing it; others had different priorities and decided to hold off. Intronis was one fan. Its marketing unit at the time relied on an annual plan that focused primarily on trade shows. Its sales department complained that marketing was too conservative and not delivering results. So the company hired Richard Delahaye, a web developer turned marketer, to implement agile.
Under his guidance the marketing team learned, for example, how to produce a topical webinar in a few days rather than several weeks. A swiftly prepared session on CryptoLocker malware attracted registrants—still a company record. Team members today continue to create calendars and budgets for the digital marketing unit, but with far less line-item detail and greater flexibility for serendipitous developments.
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The sales team is much happier. Large companies typically launch change programs as massive efforts. But the most successful introductions of agile usually start small. They often begin in IT, where software developers are likely to be familiar with the principles.
Then agile might spread to another function, with the original practitioners acting as coaches. Each success seems to create a group of passionate evangelists who can hardly wait to tell others in the organization how well agile works. The adoption and expansion of agile at John Deere, the farm equipment company, provides an example. Gradually, over several years, software development units in other parts of Deere began using them as well. Jason Brantley, the unit head, was concerned that traditional project management techniques were slowing innovation, and the two men decided to see whether agile could speed things up.
Tome invited two other unit managers to agile training classes. But all the terminology and examples came from software, and to one of the managers, who had no software background, they sounded like gibberish. Tome realized that others would react the same way, so he tracked down an agile coach who knew how to work with people without a software background. Hundreds of Deere employees joined the discussion group.
Team engagement and happiness in the unit quickly shot from the bottom third of companywide scores to the top third. Quality improved. Success like this attracts attention. Today, according to Tome, in almost every area at John Deere someone is either starting to use agile or thinking about how it could be used. Japanese martial arts students, especially those studying aikido, often learn a process called shu-ha-ri.
In the shu state they study proven disciplines. Eventually they advance to ri, where they have so thoroughly absorbed the laws and principles that they are free to improvise as they choose. Mastering agile innovation is similar. Before beginning to modify or customize agile, a person or team will benefit from practicing the widely used methodologies that have delivered success in thousands of companies. Over time, experienced practitioners should be permitted to customize agile practices.
For example, one principle holds that teams should keep their progress and impediments constantly visible. Many teams are still devoted to this practice and enjoy having nonmembers visit their team rooms to view and discuss progress. But others are turning to software programs and computer screens to minimize input time and allow the information to be shared simultaneously in multiple locations.
A key principle guides this type of improvisation: If a team wants to modify particular practices, it should experiment and track the results to make sure that the changes are improving rather than reducing customer satisfaction, work velocity, and team morale. Spotify, the music-streaming company, exemplifies an experienced adapter.
Founded in , the company was agile from birth, and its entire business model, from product development to marketing and general management, is geared to deliver better customer experiences through agile innovation. But senior leaders no longer dictate specific practices; on the contrary, they encourage experimentation and flexibility as long as changes are consistent with agile principles and can be shown to improve outcomes. Nor do they always measure velocity, keep progress reports, or employ the same techniques for estimating the time required for a given task.