You may be familiar with the term “agile” in the software development world. Before its introduction about fifteen years ago, traditional software development was much more linear. A project would include gathering requirements, design, coding and testing, and delivering a finished product.
Agile development completely changed the methodology for delivery. Instead, an agile process focuses on rapid development in very small chunks, or “iterations.” Teams must collaborate closely to break a project down and be laser-focused on delivery.
The tech world has recognized that being agile improves processes and results. The adoption of agile methodology has increased rapidly. More than 50% of tech teams are now lean-agile, with an additional 16% being pure agile.
The concept of an agile process can extend beyond the IT world. Working in short cycles leads to increased productivity, closer cooperation among teams, and happier customers. By understanding the agile process, you can use the principles and adapt them for your industry.
How Does Agile Process Work?
Agile software development is a methodology centered around software development in short cycles, often called “sprints.” Cross-functional teams gather requirements and present solutions.
Ultimately, agile development allows a team to respond to change more quickly and deliver faster. If something urgent arises, the team can add the work in the next sprint.
Agile development also leads to greater quality and predictability. The team evaluates the results of a project at the end of each sprint. In long-term projects, teams may not discover issues until it is too late or too costly to change course.
Sprints contain work within a defined block of time. A running list of deliverables is maintained and prioritized by business value.
Agile is a very customer-centric approach, as teams must think about what benefits the customer the most. Teams must have a very clear idea of customer needs (also called “user stories” in software development). Feedback from customers is heavily relied upon in agile processes, sometimes with daily reviews in the IT world.
If the team cannot complete the work within the sprint, then the remaining parts are re-prioritized for a future sprint. Because the team only focuses on the current sprint, work can be shifted to the next cycle.
The Mindset of the Agile Process
The agile process is a mindset and can be a major shift from a traditional delivery method. The mindset is that we need to adapt quickly and quantify work within a specific timeframe. Teams must communicate openly about what is doing and any roadblocks.
The agile manifesto was written in 2001 by a group of software professionals. It centers around four core values:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Because this mindset is very straightforward and versatile, the agile process isn’t limited to software code. Communications, marketing, sales, and many other industries can see meaningful results. It is universally applied to defining and delivering work.
The Roles in an Agile Team
Adopting an agile process may require rethinking your team. To put it in the context of software development, you have a Product Owner responsible for the overall scope and delivery, a Development Team that completes the work, and a Scrum Master that facilitates communication between the two.
The project planning stage will be critical as a Product Owner (more on that later), but you may find that you need someone to organize the team and ensure completion of tasks within a sprint.
Within agile software development teams, this person is referred to as a Scrum Master. Scrum is the methodology that allows teams to self-organize and make changes quickly. The Scrum Master is the person who organizes and supports both the Product Owner and the Development Team.
A scrum master usually does not have any actual authority. This is known as servant-leadership. Instead, the scrum master sits between management (or the Product Owner in software development) and “makes things happen.”
The Scrum Master supports the Product Owner by ensuring that everyone understands the scope and goals. Effective Scrum Masters have techniques for addressing a backlog of work that needs to be completed and helping the Product Owner prioritize. Scrum Masters understand product planning and agility.
To help the team, the Scrum Master acts as a coach and organizer. The Scrum Master helps the team create high-value products and removes barriers to progress. Think of this individual as the “translator” between the Product Owner, the teams, and other company stakeholders.
Your Own Roles
Within your own organization, consider the various roles. Who will be the Product Owner and define the work? Who will function as a Scrum Master, supporting the Product Owner and coaching the team?
Tips for Becoming More Agile
Have you ever felt that there is so much work that it’s hard to see the forest through the trees? Regular meetings and checklists mean little when there is an overwhelming amount of work and no time for communication. Clients can become frustrated when they don’t see any progress.
An agile process breaks that all down. You must prioritize tasks, and communication is essential. One of the best parts of the agile process is that work is no longer done in silos.
One of the hardest parts of making the transition will be the main task of planning. By mastering the planning stage, the rest of the agile process can be adapted and supported over time. The team will feel accomplished at the end of each iteration of work.
Here are some tips for implementing the agile process within your organization.
Create a Project Plan
Undoubtedly, this will be the hardest part but will likely get easier over time. The first step is for the Product Owner to create a list of the priority work items. This could include new work to be completed, previous work not completed, or issues that need to be addressed.
Next, write short descriptions of the work, or the “user story.” What is the work that needs to complete, and why? Gather as much information from your users as possible before you reach the planning stage so that you know what to expect.
You can identify your tasks on something as simple as notecards or within a planning software. The goal of writing everything down is to have an overall view of the projects and their tasks.
You want the tasks to be as small as possible to have the most flexibility in the work. If you regularly update the list of work, you have a built-in project plan for subsequent sprints.
The next step is to take your project plan and organize it into sprints. A common length for sprints is two weeks, but could also be four weeks. The critical component of the planning stage is estimating the amount of time involved in a task.
At the start of your 2-4 week period, your Product Owner will meet with the team and prepare. You will want the team to estimate the amount of time involved in each task and availability. Then throughout the sprint, track the actual amount of time spent and review to plan for the next sprint.
Do not fill a sprint to capacity because this does not allow time to adjust if something unexpected arises. At the end of the sprint, review the progress, and determine if any work is unfinished. This work will go back into the overall project plan for a future sprint.
The Product Owner will be the customer’s voice and prioritize the tasks to accomplish in that particular sprint. The Scrum Master will play the role of delivering on time.
The agile process relies heavily on communication within the team. A daily stand-up meeting of 5-10 minutes allows everyone on the team to check progress. The team can discuss any obstacles they face.
The overall project plan and assigned tasks should be open. Every team member is aware of the others’ work. Transparency and accountability are key.
By facilitating frequent communication, teammates can help each other. If someone is stuck, another can propose a solution or jump in to help. The team finds success in delivering work at the end of the sprint.
Part of the post-sprint review is understanding what didn’t get done and why. The team needs to be open and honest. Teams also need to feel comfortable sharing differing opinions as they work toward the common goal of finishing a sprint.
Openness will also happen when you seek feedback from the clients. Give clients opportunities to review the work and make changes if necessary.
The retrospective period at the end of the sprint is essential for learning lessons so that the agile process improves over time.
Implementing Agile Process in Any Environment
Whether your industry focuses on product or service, you can find ways to incorporate the agile process. Part of adopting an agile process will include having the right tools in place to support the changes.