Future-proofing for fast innovation using Agile

If there’s one that we can say about the last few weeks, it’s that almost all of us have been challenged to rethink what ‘normal’ looks like. The morning run, the school run, the daily commute, the workday, the weekly shop, the Saturday night in town, Sunday’s visit to the grandfolks … it all seems like such a long time ago that things were just ticking along nicely. Now, forced indoors for an indefinite period of time, unable to travel, shop and gather en-masse, or work from our offices, daily life looks very different, and yet at the centre of it all one thing remains the same: communication for nearly all of us still comes down to one thing – digital. Today we’re exploring future-proofing for fast innovation using agile.

From a personal point of view, surely there can’t be too many of us more than a metre from our smartphones right now, messaging friends for wellness updates, scrolling through our social feeds, consulting Dr Google and face-timing the families we can’t be with (even if it means looking up someone’s nose most of the call – yes, mum, I mean you!!!) .

From a work point-of-view, it’s digital that’s enabling many of us to keep the boat afloat from home right now, collaborating across a vast swathe of digital platforms and channels to keep the wheels turning. In fact, the current crisis is driving a notable increase in enterprise spending that’s enabling millions of us to work from home – from the usual hardware setups to virtual private networks, to the apps and programs that will allow us to contribute effectively, efficiently and as productively as we do back in the office. Being able to adapt quickly and move operations to a remote working model has been critical, with robust preparation plans having served many well.

Of course, enterprise survival, future-proofing and growth is about so much more than a seamless transition to remote working. Right now, reimagining an undoubtedly different landscape ahead of us means innovating quickly to meet the new mindset of employees, customers and consumers.

Our businesses (and ourselves) will discover through this need for fast innovation and digital transformation how to be more responsive around new needs and more flexible around adapting in the future. And our favoured navigator? Agile.

What exactly is Agile?

Agile has dramatically transformed the global business landscape. Over the past two decades, agile practices have enabled brands and large enterprises to vastly increase the pace of their digital innovation and transformation. Why? Agile enables companies to bring new innovations to market faster, improve project quality and help boost the morale and productivity of developers – and it also works across distributed remote teams.

Understand the basics of agile

Agile: quick and well-coordinated in movement; marked by an ability to think quickly; mentally acute or aware

First things first – agile’s raison d’etre is speed, which is why it’s the favoured project methodology for innovators the world over. Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Siemens, Philips – just a drop in the ocean of companies using agile methodology in one form or another to innovate quickly and cement future growth. Tech innovation is after all, by its very nature, a fast mover – it’s crucial to be ready to adapt, review, and adapt again at speed to stay one step ahead of the world, and the competition.

Oddly – or perhaps not – the link between agility and innovation is often ignored, resulting in frequent innovation failures and a lot of wasted time and money. There’s also a common misconception that agile is some kind of ‘free-for-all’ whereby team members do what they want when they choose to do it – perhaps one of the reasons it is often overlooked. In reality, agile is neither of these things. If you’re new to the world of agile, it’s important to start by getting the basics right – agile comes in several different flavours depending on how you choose to operate. Each variety of agile will share common traits but differ slightly to offer different benefits – but all varieties offer the speed that tech innovation often requires.

The Scrum

Scrum is all about fast, flexible and creative teamwork that empowers team members to solve complex mobile software challenges that require frequent iterations. Rapid development is all about focusing on the minimisation of technical and commercial waste (i.e. providing a laser-like focus on the most important and valuable tasks). Kanban is about reducing development lead times and optimising workflow processes. This enables executives to choose the right type of agile practice in relation to company vision and strategic priorities.

The fundamentals of scrum are relatively simple. In order to take advantage of specific commercial opportunities, big companies can create and empower small teams – around three to eight members, although if there are more than eight people, teams can be dissected down into smaller chunks. Each team member should then (if possible depending upon resource constraints) be assigned full-time to each sprint. The team is then responsible for working across multiple functions within each sprint and should possess all of the skills required to execute against every task. The team also needs to be self-managed and held accountable for every single task according to its priority and strategic importance.

Within each team, there are a variety of roles and responsibilities to fulfil. The product owner is responsible for the overall vision, managing an effective backlog, delivering value to the end client and should divide time between organising team members and reporting to key stakeholders within the business. It’s the product owners job to ruthlessly prioritise each task within the sprint. Team members are not only responsible for completing tasks, but also estimating the time and cost of each task (assigning a cost to individual tasks is not the responsibility of the product owner) and organise using a specified workflow pattern (referred to as a sprint cycle).

The scrum master then manages the overall workflow process and works to shield team members from barriers to progress and restrictive task impediments, minimising delays, and speeding up delivery on each milestone. If there are impediments that relate to specific tasks within each sprint, it’s the job of the scrum master to enable team members to collaborate and complete tasks accordingly by removing each associated task barrier.

The sprint process is designed to create complete transparency (often referred to as a ‘greenhouse effect’) where daily standup meetings are conducted to monitor the progress of each task. In order to get this right, teams must manage a tight backlog and constantly think of new ways to refine and optimise future sprint cycles, resulting in ever leaner project cycles that gather speed as methodologies evolve.

When bench-marked against traditional project management methodologies, agile offers many distinct benefits:

  • Working in sprints is proven to increase team morale and levels of productivity, resulting in more done in less time. This is hugely useful for large companies who are embedded and old school corporate thinking that tends to stifle the cross-pollination of new ideas and collaborative working practices. Agile also helps to minimise technical and commercial waste, by helping teams to focus purely on the tasks that are critical to success and hitting the underpinning strategic KPI’s.
  • This, in turn, helps to avoid developing unnecessary software features and prevents the occurrence of lengthy, unfocused meetings and the requirement for excessive amounts of technical documentation. Ditch the unnecessaries speed up delivery.
  • In the context of mobile, which sits at the heart of most new technological innovations, agile is all about developing the right features by focusing on what causes users to interact with each app and avoiding wastage. This process helps to improve task visibility and provides complete personal accountability for the completion of each task.

Agile requires constant adaptive thought in response to the overarching company vision and in response to external market forces. It requires the ability to define and rank the importance of each task within the sprint in order to develop focused and concise strategic initiatives and the simplification of complex workflows.

By increasing the level of cross-organisational collaboration, this helps teams to quickly develop new ideas and get mobile software products to market faster, whilst removing impediments and barriers to progress. Developing mobile apps using an agile methodology is the perfect way for large companies to innovate faster than their competitors, whilst enabling them to focus on their core business activities.

Start small and scale accordingly

The best and most effective agile change programs start small and scale over time. In most cases, agile usually begins with the software development team. In many cases, today’s software engineers are heavily embedded in desktop software development and associated project management practices. The real trick in today’s marketplace is the ability to quickly tap into the best mobile app development capability in order to rapidly develop and launch new mobile initiatives that can help to build brand awareness, enable the expansion of an existing desktop app, optimise internal processes, enable new sales tools and generate lucrative new streams of revenue – it’s quite the list, but it’s do-able!

Most software engineers, and particularly mobile developers, are already well acquainted with the techniques and practices associated with running an agile team. This means that companies whose business involve software, are likely to have a headstart on non-technical companies when it comes to introducing agile.

In many instances, where teams of software engineers are already heavily embedded in agile practices, it makes life easier when cross-fertilising these skills across different functions within each business. Each time an agile project proves to be successful, agile practitioners and coaches will become internal evangelists, helping to spread success stories and knowledge across different organisational departments. It’s a win-win.

There is a fantastic working case study of agile implementation and practice from John Deere, tractor manufacturer extraordinaire. A man named George Tome was a software engineer who had moved into project management within the company’s IT department and began applying agile principles and practices shortly after the year 2003. The agile initiatives that Tome implemented always started off small and scaled based on previous success stories. The initiatives were low-key and gradually over a number of years, Tome was able to apply the same successful agile principles across all areas of the company’s software and IT departments. This helped to create interest in agile from an internal perspective, and this level of awareness made it easy for Tome to ‘preach the gospel of agile’ to new and willing participants from different areas within the company such as sales and marketing.

A few years ago, John Deere was in the process of trying to establish how to innovate faster in order to transform the company’s sales and marketing offering. One of the John Deere executives was concerned that traditional project management and software development practices were preventing the company from innovating quickly and wanted to understand how agile could be used to help improve working practices and productivity. On this basis, Tome worked with the senior executive to teach agile to other managers within the company. One of the major challenges they encountered was the fact that most of the terminology related to software development, making it difficult for non-technical team members to learn. Tome decided that in order for agile to transcend its traditional boundaries, the language and terminology would need to be altered for non-technical participants, and very quickly the internal agile discussion board began attracting hundreds of new members.

To cut a long story short, John Deere, using Tome’s agile teachings and practices were able to start small and gradually scale up their efforts when particular strategies and tactics proved to be successful. This enabled the company to significantly compress innovation lead times and delivery dates for large-scale, complex software development projects, often by more than 75% in each instance.

This meant that new prototypes could be developed in an iterative and agile way and launched to market in a vastly reduced timescale. Tome’s agile initiative also helped to provide a new and engaging project management workflow for team members who were able to quickly improve product/service quality.

There’s an important lesson here for large companies and brands seeking to innovate faster using agile – success travels. If you can start small and prove that agile works, you can create a compelling case that will benefit other functions within the company.

Conclusion

Agile has helped to rapidly transform some of the world’s biggest and most successful companies – and future-proofed them to successfully meet the unexpected head-on because it vastly increases the rate at which companies can innovate and bring new products to market. When it comes to mobile app development, agile has proved to be a game-changer – when you combine agile techniques within the context of mobile app development, you have the perfect recipe for rapid innovation cycles which leaves you in a far better position during the unexpected to focus on delivering what’s required when it’s required.

Right now, many businesses are struggling to keep projects moving at the precise time when innovation is crucial. Those striving for success and innovation in times of immense uncertainty will be those who can be flexible enough – fast enough – to meet the new needs of the market and keeping them one step ahead of the competition. Daunting? Yes. Out of reach? No. With years of agile project management under our belt (including remote), we’re helping enterprises fight unexpected fires with agile and supporting them to continue delivering innovation to keep them on the front foot. If you’d like to find out how, we want to help.


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