Developing an agile culture could have the biggest impact on your company’s long term success.

The agility and flexibility that you need in today’s environment can’t be an afterthought anymore. It requires a dedicated and disciplined approach in how you run your company.

The term “agile” has been so overused that it might have lost some of its original meaning. What I’m referring to, is the agile methodology in project management, specifically, software development. The principles used in software development can (and should) be applied to every other part of the business, including HR.

Having an agile organization can help you complete projects faster, and can even help employee engagement.

Traditionally, software projects were done using what was referred to as the Waterfall methodology.

waterfall vs agile methodology

The waterfall methodology is sequential, meaning that each stage needs to be completed before moving on to the next step. Since it’s sequential, once a step has been completed, you can’t go back to a previous step, unless you decide to scratch the entire project and start over. Because there’s no going back, this methodology requires extensive planning at the beginning of the project.

While this may seem like a silly way to work, the two main advantages to waterfall are that clients (internal or external) know exactly what to expect, and because of its emphasis on planning and documentation, it has little impact if someone leaves the team.

The major disadvantage of the waterfall methodology is that it doesn’t take into account how real life works. It’s impossible to foresee everything you (or your client) will want in a project, requirements will constantly be changing, and you learn as you go.

The agile methodology came about as the answer to these problems. Instead of being a sequential process, it’s an iterative, incremental process. In software development, the work is done in bi-weekly or monthly sprints, and at the end of each sprint, project priorities are evaluated. These sprints allow for bugs to be discovered, and customer feedback to be incorporated before the next sprint starts.

The major advantages of agile is that it lets you move fast, and iterate as the market changes. Since the market changes so quickly in today’s world, this approach makes much more sense.

The Agile Principles

The agile manifesto was created as a guide to outline the principles of agile software development. Again, while it’s originally used for software development, it can apply to almost any part of the business. It’s not so much a methodology as it is a mindset (more on this later).

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Even if you don’t work in software development, you can use these principles to guide the way you work and live. At Officevibe, we follow these principles for our software development, but also for our marketing. The marketing team strives for simplicity, releasing things early and often, and iterating based on market reactions. Trust, autonomy, and collaboration are all qualities that we take seriously here.

There are times when this seems frustrating, and I would have loved an extra week or two to perfect that landing page, but getting something out is more important.

If you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version, you waited too long. – Matt Mullenweg, Founder of WordPress

Agile Is A Mindset

According to the eighth annual “State of Agile” survey conducted by VersionOne (PDF), when agile initiatives fail, it’s often because of issues related to culture and a resistance to change. Transforming your company into an agile development powerhouse takes a clear vision, and a commitment from senior managers.

If you ask anyone that knows anything about agile, they’ll tell you that doing “bad” agile is worse than not doing agile at all.

Good agile coaches will call this “doing agile” vs “being agile.” In agile, there are tools like daily standup meetings, retrospectives at the end of a sprint, etc. but keep in mind these are just tools.

The real change comes from the company culture. Is the company still a command-and-control type of environment? Agile is about quickly adapting to change, and not being afraid to fail. As a leader, you need to create the type of environment where failure is not only accepted, but actively encouraged.

Agile is more about how your team approaches problems, not the tools used to solve them.

In an agile environment, employees are expected to communicate frequently, because internal feedback is important to improving the team. The constant learning and iterative nature of agile means that you need to embrace failure and allow that learning to occur.

Linda Rising, a consultant and author talks about companies that have been successful by encouraging innovation and embracing failure. If you want to learn more about the power of an agile mindset, watch Linda’s keynote speech at the Agile 2011 conference.

Why Having An Agile Company Culture Is Important

Most leaders strive for perfection, but in an agile environment, that concept of perfection doesn’t exist. Being agile is a much more successful approach for a few reasons.

1. First-Mover Advantage

Probably the biggest advantage of taking an agile approach is that you can have first-mover advantage over your competitors. While they’re busy planning and perfecting, you’re out there making sales.

2. Motivates The Team

Working at that speed, and iterating quickly is incredibly exciting and motivating for all of your employees. The Progress Principle is important for motivation, and working on the same project for months with nothing tangible to show for it can be quite demotivating.

3. Involves Your Customers

Your customers get a constant sense that your company is growing because you keep releasing new features. It also allows you to adjust to customers demands, keeping them happy and with you longer.

Being a perfectionist can be very bad for you. Several studies have found links between perfectionism and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, drug addiction, and increased suicide risk.

Ways Your Company Can Become More Agile

This is easier said than done, often due to the sheer size of an organization and the complexities surrounding organizational change, but it can be done.

1. Give Employees Autonomy

There’s no way that your employees can be agile and move fast if they have to keep getting your approval before everything. Give your employees control over how they do their work.

2. Lead By Example

Communicate with employees often, be transparent with them, and embrace the principles of the agile methodology. If you don’t, how can you expect them to?

3. Create Focus For Your Team

Creating focus for your team will align everyone around the same vision and get people moving quickly towards a unified goal, instead of working quickly on many different items.

4. Understand The Value

According to the 2011 CHAOS Manifesto from the Standish Group, Agile projects are three times more successful than Waterfall projects. Educating yourself about the advantages can help you understand the value.

5. Get Rid Of Fear

You should be creating a culture where fear is acknowledged and welcomed. Build individual self-awareness so that everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses.

If you want to learn more about how to create an agile company culture, the book The Agile Culture: Leading through Trust and Ownership is a great resource.

Agile Case Study: Spotify

Spotify, the music streaming service has grown from a startup into a huge organization. How is it possible that they remained lean and agile to stay true to their startup roots?

Spotify divided up its business into small clusters, which it calls “squads”, and runs each like an independent startup. Each focuses on a specific function (like radio) and iterates on a minimum viable product. Each squad has their own workspace, and flat management structures.

Sometimes these squads need to communicate and collaborate with other squads in the company, so in that case they’ll group them into “tribes”, which act like startup incubators for the group of squads.

Tribes can be further grouped into chapters and guilds. It’s quite fascinating.

Zappos was recently in the news for their switch to holacracy, when 14% of their workforce quit because they didn’t like the new structure. Working in such a big company with a flat structure must be challenging.

Measuring Employee Engagement In An Agile Way

Measuring employee engagement should be no different than developing software. It should be done frequently and iteratively, and leaders should be agile in their approach to acting on results from the surveys.

Employee engagement thought leader spoke about this with me during our CultureTalk. Here’s the part of the video where we focus specifically on employee engagement surveys.

You should be collecting feedback from your employees early and often. Regularly surveying your employees gives them the chance to raise issues before it’s too late and sends the message that management actually cares about their employees.

Getting feedback is especially important during an employee’s initial onboarding. Seventeen percent of employees quit within the first 90 days.

Keep your surveys short and sweet. You can easily use the Net Promoter System (NPS) to measure employee satisfaction and engagement. NPS uses one simple question:

“How likely is it that you would recommend this company, or this product or service, to a friend or colleague?”

Do You Have An Agile Company Culture?