What is Agile and why has it proved so powerful in complex environments?
Agile is a framework for product development and project management based on some core Agile values and principles, rather than a rigid, predetermined set of steps.
It is specifically designed, as a lightweight framework, for us to produce and deliver products and solutions in complex environments filled with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Agile is a broad umbrella for agile frameworks, agile patterns, techniques, and tools that allow you to continuously deliver value and adapt or respond based on the short feedback loops you create.
The Scrum Framework
A lot of people confuse agile with scrum, thinking that scrum is another word for agile, but scrum is one of several agile frameworks available for product development and product discovery.
Scrum is to Agile what an apple is to fruit.
If you ask people to name a fruit, 85% of them will name an apple without thinking about the myriad of fruit available. They simply select the apple because it’s the most popular and well known fruit.
So it is with Scrum.
Scrum has proven itself to be an incredibly effective agile framework for product development teams around the world, in a myriad of applications and industries. With good reason, it is highly favoured and considered to be one of the most effective ways to navigate uncertainty and complexity.
The concept of Agile
The core of agility is based on the principles of Empiricism or Empirical Process Control.
That means Transparency. Everybody understands what is happening, the language and terminology being used, and what it is that we are trying to achieve.
It also means Inspection. We frequently inspect what is being built and we gather data or evidence through that process. Inspection from experts, leadership teams, customers, and stakeholders.
Lastly, it means Adaptation. We look at the data and evidence and use that to inform what we do next. We use the feedback that we receive from customers, stakeholders, and leadership teams to inform what new hypotheses we develop as well as the experiments we design and implement.
- Examine what we are doing.
- Analyse how the work aligns with our goals and objectives.
- Adapt based on the feedback, data, and evidence that we gather whilst doing the work.
Simple. Effective. Reliable.
Why is agile so powerful?
Agile really comes into its own in a complex environment. An environment where we have never built the solution before, never solved the problem before, and so there is no clear path to success.
There is no formula we can follow and we can’t know upfront how long it will take and whether we will achieve the goals and objectives we set. There are simply too many unknown variables and there are too many elements that could impact our product development journey.
Everything from new legislation in a foreign market to intense disruption by an unknown competitor.
Apple disrupting the mobile phone industry is a prime example of this. Whilst Nokia may have taken Samsung or Motorola seriously, they didn’t anticipate Apple disrupting the entire industry and redefining the category so effectively.
Their inability to respond to that disruption and rapidly pivot to a new product launch – despite being the clear market leaders in the industry at the time – was one of the primary reasons for Nokia disappearing from the market.
The goal of agile is to help organizations adapt and respond effectively. To use a term from Craig Larman, Agile helps organizations ‘turn on a dime, for a dime’. Quickly, cheaply, and effectively.
In a scenario where we aren’t 100% clear about the problem we are trying to solve, and don’t have a clear idea of how to solve that problem, Agile allows us to discover the best way forward and iterate rapidly based on short feedback and learning cycles known as sprints.
Typically, 1 to 4 weeks of intense product development and problem-solving.
Agile empowers teams to learn, innovate, and continuously improve through data and feedback.
A world of complexity.
Agile was conceptualized in 2001 to help software engineers deal with increasing complexity and uncertainty in their industry. Since then, the world has become increasingly more complex and uncertain for the majority of industries.
We’ve had legislative disruption like BREXIT and IRP 35 legislation. We’ve had wars launch within weeks of tensions escalating and we’ve had a global pandemic shut down the world for almost two years.
In the words of Tom Goodwin,
“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”
This is what complexity looks like.
None of the competitors to these now household name brands knew they existed until they launched. The hospitality industry could never have imagined AirBnB disrupting them without owning a single property, nor could the taxi industry imagine Uber launching so successfully without purchasing a single car.
Blindsided something fierce.
So, agile is an approach, a mindset, and a culture / philosophy of innovation and excellence that helps us navigate uncertainty and complexity. It allows us to continuously check what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how effectively we are doing it. We then decide whether that is effective in helping us achieve our goals or whether we need to pivot in a different direction.
Continuous discovery, adaptation, and improvement.