freestocks-photos / Pixabay

In the early 2000s, software developers produced the Agile manifesto, a codified list of principles that formed Agile software. This methodology was established in an effort to bring these developers’ products to market faster and more efficiently. Since then, Agile methods have started to spread to industries beyond just software and technology, with many non-technology teams applying its principles and values to their general project management approach.

The Agile manifesto is relatively simple, and its tenets have since become the foundation of many software development frameworks, including Kanban and Scrum. However, as time has gone on, non-technology teams have also found that adopting an Agile mindset has helped them produce more efficient and innovative workflows.

In order to implement the Agile mindset, it’s equally important to know the elements of the Agile method as knowing which environments allow Agile thinking to thrive:

Understanding the Agile method as a non-technology business

At its core, Agile is more of a philosophy of work, or an approach that you take to your work, as opposed to a set of specific management processes. No matter which framework you use, or what industry you work in, many of the core principles are applicable.

  • Iteration is the key to the Agile approach. Instead of tackling a huge project all at once, it’s broken down into individual tasks, which are then grouped into short, two to three week “sprints.” Members within an Agile group take on a set of assigned tasks, then work through them during this sprint period. At the end of the sprint, the team will regroup to evaluate what has been done, work through any roadblocks, get necessary feedback or approvals from clients, and set the tasks to complete during the next sprint.
  • Tasks remain transparent during sprints. Most Agile methods integrate some sort of shared task board, which allows the team to track collective progress. Tasks within a project are typically divided into three main sections: to do, in progress and done. Team members move tasks from “to do” to “in progress” as they are assigned, and into “done” as they are completed. Transparency of work allows for other team members to comment on and review work as it is being completed, catching any issues or problems before it’s too late at the end of the project.
  • Individuals have high levels of autonomy during a project. One of the reasons why Agile is particularly valued by teams, particularly creative ones, is because of the enormous amount of autonomy and responsibility bestowed on team members. Instead of being told how to do something, team members simply know what they have to accomplish and by when—this gives them the freedom to experiment and find unique solutions for their assigned tasks.
  • Communication is highly focused but brief. One of the primary goals in creating the Agile manifesto was to eliminate wasteful meetings spent planning things, instead of actually doing them. During sprints, teams are encouraged to have short “stand-up” meetings, lasting between five and 10 minutes. These are simply check-in meetings to keep everyone in sync during the sprint. The rationale behind these meetings is that if everyone is standing, they will be motivated to keep their remarks brief.
  • Continuous improvement happens through retrospectives. At the end of every sprint, team members gather for a retrospective, which is a discussion that allows the team to reinforce positive outcomes, address any issues, and consider ideas for changes or improvements. These natural, built-in checkpoints help teams think about the bigger picture of the project, something that can be lost if they are only focused on checking off tasks or deliverables.

The projects and companies where Agile is useful

Agile doesn’t work for all companies or projects. Because of its slightly chaotic nature, this method is more successful in certain situations than in others.

  • Agile works best in creative contexts. An iterative project management process is well suited for creative projects, especially when the end goal is to satisfy a specific customer, client or stakeholder. The Agile method wouldn’t translate to workers on a factory floor because they have concrete tasks to complete within a certain timeframe. However, this company’s product development teams could benefit from working in Agile mode to dream up the company’s next bestseller. Other teams that work well with an Agile mindset include marketing teams and agencies, media companies, non-profit organizations, education companies and institutions, among others.
  • Agile works best with skilled, highly motivated team members. Since autonomy is a major factor in agile workflows, workers that expect to be directed on what to do, or workers not used to taking a high level of self-responsibility, do not fare well in an Agile environment. Team players are also more suited to Agile than individuals that prefer to work alone.
  • Agile requires a commitment to time, resources, and training. Using Agile requires buy-in from the entire team and all of its stakeholders. Everyone needs to understand and believe in the philosophy, and be flexible enough to adopt to changes in both project and process. The method also requires skilled group leaders that know how to manage within an Agile mindset.

Successes and innovation

Outside the world of technology, an Agile mindset can introduce efficiencies to processes that speed up delivery times and reduce costs. One of the most famous case studies comes from NPR, which used the Agile method to help reduce programming costs and bring its programs to market faster. While NPR may be the most public success story, it is not the only one. Companies across all sectors have used Agile practices to more efficiently develop company training materials, publish curricula more quickly and with less mistakes, and streamline recruitment candidates, among countless other examples.

It is important to remember that Agile is not right for every company. Whether Agile is a fit for a company will depend on the culture and capabilities of a team and the expectations of its stakeholders. However, if implemented successfully, Agile can truly innovate the way a company does business now and in the future.