Why Agile? – Three Answers

Agility, the ability for an organization to swiftly change goals, deliverables, plans, or ways of working, is taking on. The world seems to want it.

But why? We have talked before about the promise of agile:

But is this what organizations use agile for? Are people getting the real benefits from agile?

The answers vary with the organization. I have found that you often can categorize the "use cases", or usage patterns, for agile in three categories:

  1. Reactive agile: You want to handle the change that is happening to you.
  2. Proactive agile: You want to change the direction of the organization.
  3. Innovative agile: You want to explore new possibilities together with your customers, your co-workers, and with other stakeholders.

While there certainly are gains you can get from using agility as described first in the list (just accomodate what the world is trying to do to your plans and forecasts), remember that agility is expensive to get. If you want a better return of your investment, you might want to do more than that.

Reactive: Handle the Change

You know what to deliver. You have an idea of how long it will take. But of course unforseeable things happen.

So you make those things visible.

You replan together.

You have conversations with stakeholders.

And eventually you'll learn about the actual lead times you work under. You often become better at planning and predicting stuff. And better at collaborating across a few of the organizational borders.

You will have at least some gains in productivity and stability. This is what reactive agile will give you.

Proactive: Decide to Change

A big part of the different agile methods and frameworks are spent on describing how to plan what to do. Plan the next couple of weeks or months together, in small and large groups.

A lot of planning? Isn't that counter-intuitive? After all: being agile is more about handling change, than it is about following plans, right?

True. But if you want to be good at handling change, you actually need to plan a lot. Frequent replanning is a key agile strategy.

At first, as we saw above, because we have to. The circumstances force us.

But when that has happened enough times, we actually become good at replanning together, in a sustainable way. It isn't any longer something hard or dramatic.

It's just another day at the job.

When change doesn't hurt that much, we have actually become more agile. So let's make good use of it!

New strategy? New goals? New product? Agility is the ability to reconsider all of them, and more. At will. This is what proactive agile will give you.

Innovative: Explore What to Change

Reactive agile helps us make things. Proactive agile helps us make things right. But how do we make the right things?

When different approaches of investigating people's needs arose in the field of service design in the end of the 1990s, there was a problem. We couldn't harbour the insights in an effective way.

The way many of us did projects was this:

  1. Make a very detailed assumption of what to build.
  2. Make an even more detailed assumption of how to do it.
  3. Label the assumptions "Project Plan".
  4. Avoid changing the plan, no matter what insights you might have along the way.

In such an environment, the only way to investigate people's needs and their reactions to different future solutions was to either interview them, or to put them in front of a mock-up or a prototype, if we had the luxury to be able to build one.

We couldn't put them in front of a simple version of the real thing. We couldn't develop an improved version just days or weeks after the insights were made. Because we weren't allowed to develop anything until we had figured out almost everything.

And we absolutely couldn't do it continuously. Any larger change in our services had to, according to those rules, take place within a specific project. With all the demands for upfront design and pre-planning.

The agile methods are ways to counter that. Agile methods create an environment for continuous improvement.

Running experiments and maximizing learning in the wild. Fixing things, and trying things, and seizing the opportunities when we see them.

That was what the early agilists set out to enable. That was what Scrum, from its earliests incarnations and onwards, was meant to be used for: discovering the future products. Understanding what to build. That is the ability that innovative agile will give you.

Your Homework

Consider your reasons to use agile. Reactive, proactive or innovative?

Or maybe two of them? Or all three? Remember, there is nothing wrong whatever your reason is.

But there might be more to gain from your ability to be agile. More benefit than just be better at delivering what someone else has dreamt up.

Consider the possibilities for a more flexible product discovery process.

I Can Help!

If you want to discuss how to use agile methods more effectively, just let me know!

I might be able to contribute with a thought or two on how to improve.

Did you give trainings as well?