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Being Nimble

The principles of software development are infiltrating general business practices, says Carolyn de Kock, but can a corporate really be lean and agile?

When a river hits a mountain’s edge, it flows, sequential, linear, from rock to rock until it reaches its geographically plotted destination at the bottom. Since the 1970s this is how computer software has been developed. Problems are investigated, analysis done, solutions proposed, end goals set, and applications designed and built to carefully plotted specifications.

The term ‘Waterfall model’ was coined by computer scientist Winston Walker Royce, and it mirrored behaviours in the manufacturing and engineering industries’ highly structured environments. Organisations like Ford pioneered this model of production-line mentality, and it dominated the way physical goods were made. It quickly gained support from IT managers because – well – it’s easy to manage something that flows logically from one step to the next. The world of software development has changed, favouring more flexible approaches to problem-solving and clear communication over hard targets. And just as IT inherited management practices from business in its early days, now business is learning from the tech guys how to optimise itself better too.

Along comes agile

In 2001, a group of software developers drafted the Agile Manifesto, a new set of guidelines for making applications faster and better than before. The Waterfall model’s strict linear approach stifles change, they argued, preventing engineers from improving things as they went along. Put early builds of products into the hands of users and adapt them based on feedback, they advised. It’s better to work iteratively, developing quick solutions and improving on them, than to be stuck into a long-term plan that isn’t right for the purpose.

Rather than working as monolithic teams of developers, testers or support engineers towards a distant goal, groups of mixed skillsets should work together on smaller chunks of the whole and communicate with their peers at regular feedback sessions to speed up problem-solving. Under Waterfall, teams may spend months, even years, developing a new program or product only to find that when they take it to market, the market doesn’t have an appetite for it – or if they did, they’ve moved on. Agile seeks to address issues early.

“Business Agile Methodology” encourages the same kind of project management across all business operations, not just those relating to IT. It values flexibility and responsiveness over bureaucracy.

Antoinette Coetzee is the founder of Just Plain Agile, which facilitates training for South African organisations. “It’s not a methodology, but a philosophy,” Coetzee says, “It’s a way of thinking versus a way of doing.”

One of the most important tenets of Agile is placing people over tools and systems. Instead of imposing a mechanistic regime on workers in the interest of efficiency, Agile proposes that people and their interactions are valued.

“It’s not to say that tools and processes aren’t important, but it’s more important to have competent people working together efficiently,” says Coetzee. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, businesses that are deploying Agile at scale have accelerated innovation by up to 80%.

Agile organisations focus on rapid iteration and experimentation. This often happens in two-week ‘sprints’ called ‘scrums’, during which teams tackle complex problems by assigning individual tasks to the member best suited. Every few days, team members check in to discuss progress and set goals for the next sprint.

“For the first time, people feel invited to solve problems and decide how work should be done. That’s what gets people fired up,” says Coetzee, “But this also makes managers nervous – it’s a sense of loss of control.”

Leadership can be a stumbling block

For businesses wanting to embrace Agile outside of their IT departments, the biggest change happens at leadership level. “Transforming to Agile means a complete move away from command and control management, towards managing a clearly defined set of goals,” says Coetzee.

Without managed goals, a ‘sprint’ could easily fall into disarray. According to McKinsey, a key trait of an Agile organisation is a shared purpose and vision. This “North Star” helps teams follow a path, and remain personally invested. Agile organisations should maintain a stable top-level structure, but replace much of the remaining traditional hierarchy with a flexible, scalable network of teams.

“Agile must be done within a defined set of parameters, or a ‘play pen’ of constraints and conditions,” says Coetzee. “Agile doesn’t mean everyone just gets to do what they want. Strong leadership is essential, but a different kind of leadership to before.”

There are still challenges. To a certain extent, Agile relies on having highly-skilled employees who can take individual responsibility for their tasks. Recruiting and retaining talent is expensive. Agile may also not work in every environment. It’s harder to track and quantify the effort, time, and cost of delivering the final product.

Agile business methodology didn’t just grow out of software development, of course. It’s also closely related to the principles of Lean manufacturing, which also aims to cut down on waste by focusing on continuous improvement and reacting to challenges as they occur, pioneered by Toyota from the mid-20th century on. Martin Fowler, a
co-author of the Agile Manifesto, describes Agile as an approach and Lean as one set of tools to achieve it.

The two arguably come together most completely in The Lean Startup method, described by Eric Ries in his 2011 book of the same name, which is aimed at entrepreneurs – and Ries includes “intrapreneurs” building new products within existing companies.

“I see entrepreneurs make the same mistake,” says Tanye ver Loren van Themaat, director of advisory firm Thundamental. “They have an idea, develop a business plan, get approval and funding, then execute before they’ve tested it.”

In the age of digital media, this is no longer acceptable. Social media enables customers to be more outspoken – but it also enables feedback channels that can be used for product development.

Van Themaat worked closely with tech entrepreneur, Lehlohonolo Ramongalo, as he was building his business, Figtory, which specialises in the Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. Figtory is now backed by IBM and has brought three successful solutions to market.

“The most interesting lesson is that your initial assumptions are almost always wrong,” says Ramongalo. “Understanding customers’ true needs, not their wants, is very important.”

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