Agile Methodology Overview: Everything You Need to Know
Thinking about trying Agile? You aren’t alone. Agile methodology was originally designed by software developers as a better process for managing their work, but today, it’s used in disciplines from marketing to customer success and beyond.
Here’s an overview of the basic ideas behind Agile, and how you can apply these ideas to improve your work life regardless of where you are in your path towards agility.
Where Did Agile Come From?
Like all project management methods, Agile wasn’t spontaneously created. It was the product of a slow evolution of traditional workflow management methods (borrowed from manufacturing), plus the innovation of some forward-thinking software developers. Frustrated with prevailing methods, these developers convened in 2001 to formally draft new, better guidelines for software development.
At this summit, they wrote what is now known as the Agile Manifesto: a set of guiding principles for the Agile methodology that has remained relevant over time. The core values of Agile expressed in the Agile Manifesto include:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Here’s what each of these values mean, regardless of your industry, and how you can apply them in your daily work.
Put People and Human Interactions First
Originally written as:Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Many of the methods before Agile relied heavily on the ceremony and discipline of a highly regimented workflow management system to maintain control over people. You might recognize this in your own workplace as:
- unnecessarily strict rules about where or how people work
- dogmatic use of a “team building” software instead of honest conversations
- other ways of maintaining control over people that don’t produce positive (financial or cultural) results
Instead, Agile values effective collaboration between people, with processes and tools only serving to support that collaboration. Put another way, Agile encourages humans to leverage the skills that only we as humans have: emotional intelligence, creative problem-solving, and critical thinking. Tools and processes are great for keeping us organized and saving time, but they should only serve as a way to automate tedious, repeatable tasks or share information - not take the place of real human interactions.
Regardless of your industry, you can think of this value when facing any decision that might require the nuance and intimacy of a face-to-face conversation: Is this something that requires my emotional intelligence, critical thinking, or creative problem-solving?
If not, automate away. If a face-to-face, human interaction would provide you with more value, make space for that.
Make It Workable
Originally written as:Working software over comprehensive documentation
This value might sound very software-specific, but it actually contains a significant concept that can be applied to virtually any type of work. Before Agile, software development methods required teams to create extensive documentation for everything they did.
While disciplined and responsible, the problem with this method is that it is painstakingly slow. Teams usually wouldn’t release products until they were fully built and documented, only to learn hours after releasing it into the market that there are several major issues with it, requiring more building and more documentation.
In Agile, a working product - whether that product is an app, a website, or a marketing campaign - is more valuable than a perfect plan for that product.
Why? Because this gives your team infinitely more opportunity to collect and incorporate user feedback (more on this in the next section). Agile teams responsibly, but ambitiously, aim to launch things as soon as they’re ready, in as small of chunks as possible, so that they can collect more user feedback and continue to make the product better.
Ask Questions Along the Way
Originally written as:Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
As we discussed in the previous section, the problem with valuing comprehensive documentation over working software is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for user feedback. The product is completely built before its users are really able to express how they feel about different elements of the product. They’re likely to take issue with some elements of it, but likely won’t see any improvements on the product for another long development cycle.
Imagine if an interior decorator waited until completing a home design before incorporating client feedback. Or if a hair stylist refused to let you see a mirror during your cut. You’d probably feel frustrated with the end result, even if it was close to what you would’ve asked for in the first place, simply because you weren’t allowed to provide input. And if it were way off the mark, you’d probably be livid, because of all the time, money, and potentially hair, that you can’t get back.
Working with your customer throughout the development process is a key value in Agile methodology, which is done by planning and producing work in small batches, and then testing that work in the market.
Whether your customer is external (an actual paying customer) or internal (your boss, who’s waiting for a presentation you’re preparing), it’s always smart to gather and incorporate feedback throughout the “development” process to ensure that the thing you’re creating is the thing they want.
Originally written as:Responding to change over following a plan
Before Agile and its related methods, software development was managed the way other types of work were managed at that time:
- Long development cycles
- Lots of upfront planning
- Little room for changes
- Tightly prescribed timelines for each phase
You can probably point to areas of your business where things are handled this way.
The problem is, even with the most data-driven estimates, teams won’t always be able to deliver work according to a specific schedule. Changes in the team, data, weather, economy, or requirements can all impact the progress of a piece of work. Not to mention, creating long-term plans (and failing to re-evaluate them over time) means you’re likely not focused on listening to what your market is telling you as you’re developing it.
Agile teams realize that sticking to the plan at all costs often means ignoring valuable information and insights from the market.
Build ways of collecting user feedback into everything you do, whether through in-app surveys, emails, social media, team retrospectives, to make sure that the things you’re spending time, money, and energy on are making the impact you want them to have.
Go Forth and Be Agile
Although it can seem intimidating, Agile methodology is really just a method of thinking about work to help you get more done, faster. Whether or not your organization is formally Agile, incorporating these values into your daily work is a step toward a smarter, more productive future: Put people first, make it workable, work with your customer, and be flexible, and you have everything you need to increase your agility.
For more resources about Agile methodology, check out the LeanKit Blog!