If you’ve worked with or around software developers in the past decade, you’ve likely heard of the Agile methodology. Agile was originally designed to help developers create higher quality software, faster and more reliably.
But Agile isn’t just for software anymore: As software teams experienced significant improvements in speed, quality, and reliability from using the Agile methodology, teams in other departments began adopting Agile practices hoping to gain similar results. Today, the Agile methodology is used across entire businesses, by teams in marketing, sales, customer success, operations, and beyond, to promote productivity, sustainability, flexibility, and transparency.
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
While these values were meant to apply specifically to software development teams, the principles behind them could truly apply to teams in any discipline. Let’s dive into each of these values and how they play out in real life.
Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools
In the late 1990s, it became clear that traditional software development practices were not fast nor adaptable enough to effectively manage the workflows of development teams. Most of these methods were cumbersome, overly regulated, and highly micro-managed – creating poor environments for inspiring innovation or evolution.
Ultimately, these methods lacked the flexibility, agility, scalability, and transparency that modern software development required. Most of them required extensive training to get started, and practicing them required considerable time, knowledge, and effort. Often, teams would get so bogged down by the processes, tools, rules, and roles prescribed by their methodology that they would lose sight of their actual goals.
The Agile methodology emphasizes effective, communicative collaboration between competent people over overly complex processes and tools. Many of the methods before Agile relied heavily on the ceremony and discipline of a highly regimented workflow management system to maintain control over people. Not only is this cumbersome, it’s also horrible for morale. People rarely thrive in environments where they have no room for experimentation, creativity, or autonomy.
Regardless of your line of work, it’s important to remember that it’s the people in your organization that will make it great. Empowering smart people to do good work is a much smarter long-term strategy than trying to maintain control through extensive, complex management systems.
Recognizing this, the Agile methodology values effective collaboration between people, with processes and tools only serving to support that collaboration.
Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation
In the early days of software development, software was developed and released in large batches – making development cycles inherently slow and complex. The prevailing methods before Agile often required teams to create extensive documentation for everything they did, as a way to safeguard quality and sustainability of the software. This documentation was necessary to keep all the information contained within one iteration straight.
A key element of Agile is frequent, iterative development – planning and producing work in small batches, and then testing that work in the market. As such, the Agile methodology values working software – software that is able to be delivered to the market – over comprehensive documentation. Agile thinking is that good documentation is useful in helping people understand how a piece of software was built and how to use it, but ultimately the purpose of development is to create software (or in other disciplines: a functional product or service), not documentation.
What about if you aren’t in software? This principle – iterating frequently, aiming to release functional projects, whatever they may be – can still apply. If you release ideas, projects, and products into the market frequently, you can make small adjustments to issues before they become big problems. You don’t need extensive documentation, because the thing you’re releasing isn’t nearly as complex. Regardless of your field, valuing getting it done over getting it done perfectly (no matter how slowly) is always a smart idea.
Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation
Traditionally, development teams would work with customers upfront to develop a contract that met expressed needs at the time of writing. The problem with this approach is that it left no room for collaboration after the contract was signed – teams would deliver software that met the needs expressed in the contract, not necessarily needs that were truly reflected in reality.
Developers began to realize that it doesn’t matter if a project meets the needs in the contract if it doesn’t truly meet the needs of the customer at the time it’s delivered. To ensure teams create work that is actually needed by the market, the Agile methodology engages the voice of the customer in the development of products. It values active, frequent collaboration with customers to develop work that truly addresses real needs.
Even if your line of work doesn’t require extensive contracts with your customers, you can still glean something from this idea: Work with your customers throughout any development process, not just at the beginning. Ask for their feedback. Incorporate their ideas into your designs. Allow their ideas to shape the way you do work. Active, frequent collaboration with customers will lead to higher quality, more innovative solutions to meet their needs.
Responding to Change Over Following a Plan
If your business operates in long development cycles, with lots of upfront planning, and tightly prescribed timelines for each phase of work, you know that there is very little room for adapting to change. You create a tight plan with a tight budget and you have to stick to it, at all costs.
The problem with this type of workflow management is that teams rarely behave in real life as they do on paper. Even with the most data-driven estimates, teams won’t always be able to deliver work according to a specific schedule. Changes in the market, team, data, or requirements can drastically impact the progress of a piece of work. Not to mention the fact that sticking to the plan at all costs often means ignoring valuable information and insights from the market.
Software developers recognized that they needed a workflow management system that would allow them the agility to adapt to these types of changes. The Agile methodology allows teams to deliver in small batches, frequently, with short planning cycles – so as plans change, the team can change with it.
This value is relevant in any field, whether you’re planning a software product release, a marketing campaign, or a research project for sales: Don’t try to eat the elephant all at once. As the saying goes, the way to tackle any large problem is to do it one bite at a time. The Agile methodology encourages teams to break big, complex initiatives into small, manageable pieces to maximize flexibility, adaptability, and creativity.