Three Companies Proving Agile is Successful Outside of Software
Agile is often referred to as a project management framework, methodology, or a mindset and is widely used throughout software development companies. You may have heard about some of the benefits of Agile like increased productivity, higher success rates vs. traditional project management, and boosts to customer satisfaction while simultaneously decreasing time to market, costs, and waste.
With results like these, you might be asking if Agile could also work for your organization, even if you’re not in software development. Unfortunately, I often encounter the mindset that “Agile is only for software, its principles don’t apply to us.” I think that’s just plain wrong. As a Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner myself, I often see Agile principles in practice beyond their perceived scope of software development, even using Agile in government work.
It’s true that many software development companies have adopted Agile and been greatly successful with its implementation, but why couldn’t professional services like Management Consulting, Human Resources or Marketing use the same principles to reach success? That very question was the focus of the recent Business Agility Conference in NYC. In a first of its kind event, 300+ agile professionals, consultants, and business leaders participated in a series of short presentations and facilitated workshops to discuss how applying Agile can, and is, innovating and disrupting current markets while increasing organizational success outside of software development.
While there were several great presentations focused on successful Agile implementation outside of software development, I think the following three presentations did a particularly great job:
David Grabel – VistaPrint
VistaPrint, a marketing company for small businesses, conducted an evaluation of their waterfall methodology revealing that the teams were taking more than 60 days to take a new idea to a deliverable. However, the 60-day cycle amounted to only about 40 hours of actual work.
Why, if the actual life-cycle takes only 40 hours of actual work were they seeing the process take two months to deliver? A root cause analysis revealed they were suffering from feedback “swirls”, blaming, unclear decision rights, and long creative lead times.
VistaPrint made the decision to switch to Agile, focusing on decreasing project lead time. They began by promoting team environments, information sharing, and transparency. They implemented team building activities, daily stand-ups, Kanban boards, an idea pipeline, more informational touch points, and retrospectives to review what went well and what didn’t to improve their processes for the future.
In five months, they saw their Lead Time decrease from 40 days to 15 days. Five months later, they would see this drop further to 7 days, an 83% improvement overall.
Dan Montgomery – AgileStrategies
Dan Montgomery was hired as a consultant and coach to help 5Acres, a not-for-profit orphanage placing children with permanent loving families, improve their business model to increase the number of children placed with permanent families each year.
The current system used a waterfall methodology and a hierarchical management framework. The control was tightly coupled and often failed in cascading down to the appropriate levels for execution. The organization also found that there were far too many initiatives being worked simultaneously further affecting their ability to successfully plan, execute, and deliver results.
5Acres began the transition to Agile by conducting team building activities and deep dives to define the organization’s initiatives. One key outcome was implementing the use of Objectives & Key Results (OKRs). They committed to taking on only 1-5 initiatives at a time to improve the likelihood of success. The teams focused on the mantra “start less and finish more.”
In doing so, 5Acres took over 30 strategic initiatives and prioritized them to set five clearly defined, measurable, organizational goals to reach by 2020. The clearly defined goals helped 5Acres hone in on their key objectives and desired outcomes over a short 3-5 year horizon resulting in a focused, attainable plan.
Isabella Serg – AgileIBM
Agile is not necessarily new to IBM. The technology company has been using Agile across IT programs for years. The novelty was implementing it in their Human Resources department.
IBM was facing challenges in recruiting and retaining top talent including the difficulty of attracting STEM talent, an expanding global workforce, and a need to better manage high and low performance across the organization. To improve their employee services, HR conducted an evaluation of their current practices and identified two areas that would benefit from an Agile approach: its hierarchical organization and implementation of a specialized work force within HR; and managing work in progress (WIP).
IBM started by identifying their Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) which fed into the creation of cross-functional, self-selected teams. Making the change from specialized, management assigned teams to cross-functional, self-selected teams increased employee feelings of empowerment, purpose, and collaboration ultimately resulting in better work products.
The teams implemented a backlog to manage their WIP. This provided transparency and focused employees on finishing a task before starting a new one. The teams were then able to measure their work and end results providing them further insights into their strengths and identify areas for improvement.
As we can see from these three examples at the Business Agility Conference, Agile is not only successful in software development, it’s just the first industry that really proved it works. Creating cross-functional collaborative teams can lead to employee empowerment and boost team performance while delivering better client results. Developing measurable, attainable, time-boxed goals can lead to a higher likelihood of successful execution: start less and finish more. Implementing transparent work practices, measuring end results, and evaluating strengths and weaknesses can lead to process improvement and increased efficiency.
The basic principles of Agile center on collaboration, transparency, and the creation of self-organizing cross-functional teams. Almost any organization can build on those basic principles to achieve success.