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What you can learn from agile management, even if you don’t work in software
Agile management methods are well known in software development, where leading companies like Apple and Google use them to continuously improve the products they bring to market. Outside of the startup world, though, agile is still viewed as a foreign concept. That’s a puzzle because in today’s world, businesses that use agile methods have the advantage. They use focused, efficient teams to make rapid gains, leveraging their talent pool to solve problems as they arise.
Digital technology and global markets have changed the pace of business. In today’s environment, companies that don’t use agile management methods risk falling behind.
The key benefits are less process, less ritual, faster and more creative solutions.
How do you apply agile methods to achieve business wins even if you don’t work in software?
Agile management uses small, focused teams to achieve greater efficiency and reactivity.
What that means in practice is that teams should be just small enough to work well, but not so small that they can’t get things done.
In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos created the famous “two-pizza rule”:
Every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas.
You might think this approach only works for startups, but it’s been proven to work even in large, complex organizations, as Steve Denning notes in The Age of Agile.
Big teams can be divided into smaller “squads” that focus on specific problems, like how to improve supply chains or market a new product.
Large teams quickly get mired in meetings and processes, working at cross-purposes to the company’s needs. Small teams have clear advantages: they communicate better, take decisions faster, and everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing at any given time.
Today’s workforce is highly skilled, trained, and educated, coming into their roles with existing internships and experience. They no longer have the patience to do repetitive, boring tasks that have been dictated from above.
Micromanagement is a dead weight, slowing down work processes and impeding teams’ ability to get things done.
The agile manager knows when to get out of the way and let the team go about their business, relying on their expertise and inspiring their motivation to do the job right.
As Denning notes:
Leaders in agile “are less like heroic conquering warriors and more like curators or gardeners.
The traditional approach to selling a product is to start with the concept, then research and development, then marketing, and finally the launch.
That launch-last approach entails big risks: the Harvard Business Review notes that around 75% of consumer packaged goods and retail products earn less than $7.5 million during their first year, potentially a huge loss compared to the cost of bringing them to market. (HBR)
In agile management, the solution is to try first. Teams are encouraged to continuously test out products, services and improvements with trial versions.
Agile aficionados call this the “minimum viable product”: a prototype or mockup that’s just good enough to test out your new idea.
A minimum viable product could be a semi-functioning robot that delivers soap to hotel guests, as in one trial run by a company in Google Ventures. Or it could simply be a brochure or a mock-up of your new website.
Testing early doesn’t solve every problem or answer every question. But it does let you see if you have the right idea before your team invests months or years in a project that might fail.
Listening is at the core of agile management. It’s not just about being available for employees, but about taking their ideas and feedback on board so you can achieve better solutions.
Jo North, an expert in innovation and intrapreneurship, explains that listening and learning from others is crucial to sparking innovation:
Leaders need to be super aware of trying to reduce their blind spots, super aware of where they’re not strong and okay with that. And they shouldn’t be afraid to bring in people who are strong in areas they’re not.
Discussing issues with your team lets everyone have a say in how they’re going to achieve their team goals. But agile managers still have the last word on who does what, when, and how.
Charlotte Mallo explains how this worked at Crowbotics:
I would always explain and justify a decision of mine, but when we were in a hurry to change some feature development … and there [was] little room for discussion, [the whole team] would trust me and do it with trust.
The key difference is to make listening to your team a key step in every important decision, even if you decide to go a different way.
A lot of organizations function like boxes nestled within boxes: each box is one team, group, or subdivision, and none of them can see what’s inside any of the others.
In agile, managers and teams operate in a fluid network, communicating throughout the organization to coordinate their work towards a common goal.
This allows massive gains in product quality, but also speed of development. One study found that agile methodologies allowed 75% faster development compared to the traditional waterfall approach. (IJMPB)
One way to do this is to organize face-to-face meetings with managers and employees in other teams. Another way is to use apps and digital tools to communicate with other people in the organization as needed.
Whichever method you choose, the key is to encourage employees to be proactive and communicate. They shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to the right person so they can solve problems quickly and get things done.
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