Agile, More than a mehodology for project development

In the current global market context, organizations capable of innovating quickly, adapting to change and implementing projects with greater flexibility, will reap its benefits. What are the levers we need to move to trigger change toward a mindset of agility and new ways of learning?

With the common goal of creating business value by providing the flexibility and adaptability that organizations require nowadays, some years ago different working methodologies/philosophies began to appear (and reappear). Framed within the concept of 'agile', we find more and more companies talking about lean processes, Scrum or Kanban working teams, agile management methodologies, etc.

However, from our experience, none of these 'work modes' is sustainable in the long term if they are only perceived as that, 'modes', instead of being understood as part of a way of being that permeates the identity of the whole organization. Thus, developing an agile culture that defines the essence of the organization and how this organization learns, becomes a key element for success.

At first sight, these methodologies and tools may seem different, but behind each one of these lies the same framework, which translates into commonalities amongst them that are critical to the definition and installation of a new culture. What can companies do to promote agility beyond providing agile methodology or processes? How can we create a different learning context to ensure teams become real 'agile teams'?

The agile culture as a framework for a new way of learning

Agile teams are not self-generated, an organization must provide the environment that allows them to develop and strengthen current and new skills throughout time. Regardless of the specific framework chosen within the agile repertoire, a culture aligned to this philosophy has specific characteristics that impact on how the organizational learning is shaped.

Flexibility. To achieve a swifter and better adaptation to the environment, market and customer needs, a culture that understands uncertainty, embraces it and is willing to change direction dependent on projects needs and progress. This is fundamental for the proper functioning of short cycle work, periodic checks and fast delivery.

The more uncertainty is involved in a project, the more likely it is for us to make mistakes and rework. For this reason, moving forward 'bit by bit' allows for more frequent validations and on-time corrections when they are still in an initial state.

A flexible culture using the methods that agile proposes, allows for the identification of improvement opportunities in due time and proper form, and makes the learning cycles shorter and continuous, ensuring that what is learned is applied almost immediately.

Google is one of the big companies that has taken advantage of this agile feature the most and has transmitted it to its development teams. How? It encourages teams to fail fast and cheap. In each process, teams must make continuous tests for users to detect mistakes quickly and correct them before releasing the changes to the general public. In this way, it divides the risk, test vulnerability and makes sure that new versions developed will not fail when launched.

Freedom. Agile teams are autonomous in the decision-making process within the framework of the projects they participate in and the tasks for which they are responsible. This freedom is key to prevent projects from getting stuck. If validation is needed every time that the team needs to define the course of action of a project, agility is lost.

In Spotify, for example, this freedom is instilled through the formation of project teams called 'squads'. Each squad is responsible for an aspect of the product and has the autonomy to decide what to build, how to do it and with whom to work to make the product achievable.

This independence strengthens the maturity of the team and fosters the accountability for the results obtained. Whether positive or negative, the sense of contribution that arises from having made the decisions that lead to those results, fosters the internalization and positive feedback to learn from experience.

Transparency. In an agile team, all decisions and actions that affect them as a unit should be visible in their environment. The continuous and open communication in an agile team is essential to guarantee the fluidity of the processes and avoid twists and turns.

An organization that relies on the teams and fosters trust between them, drives a solid learning based on periodic and genuine feedback processes, allowing them to learn from the mistakes and strengthen areas of improvement for the next experience.

Unity and completeness. The multi-functional work teams proposed in some agile methodologies work more efficiently than each one of their members separately, since they generate the necessary synergies in terms of information, validations and knowledge for decision making in uncertain environments, generating a better result. This possibility of working with people from other areas with different skills encourages a dynamic and comprehensive analysis of the situation or project in question, allowing each member of the team to understand the functioning of other areas, learn from other experiences and transform them into best practices.

To enhance the unity and transparency, some companies like Facebook put together multidisciplinary projects and give them a new workplace for themselves, where they work together until the project is completed. This practice supports a more fluid and direct communication, in addition to giving a comprehensive overview of the work carried out by all them and the value added to the project.

In short, agile is more than just a methodology for innovation or product creation, it is an organizational philosophy that should influence the way organizations manage themselves and learn. To do that, we need to build a culture that fosters the appropriate values and behaviors for the type of agility we want to achieve. Only then, change will be accepted and sustainable in the long term. ■

Anne Cortina Zapfe
Consultant in Tandem, Decision Solutions
alcz@tandemsd.com