Aaron Sanders, a US-based professional Agile coach, was recently in SA to deliver a series of training courses to the DVT Academy. He took some time out of his schedule to outline exactly why Agile is the business methodology of the future.

“Agile is effectively a set of values and principles based on iterative development, where solutions evolve through the collaboration of a self-organising cross-functional team,” he says.

He explains that it has its roots in Lean methodology, which means that it can be traced back at least as far as 1799, when Eli Whitney manufactured muskets using interchangeable parts. This was when the initial concept of mass manufacturing began to take hold.

“Scrum is an Agile framework that proposes a new approach to product development. In the past, product development was treated somewhat like a relay race, where different specialists were involved in different parts of the project, before handing the baton on to the next group.”

“Scrum adopts a much more innovative approach to this, treating the product development crew like a rugby team and hence the name. In other words, there are still a range of specialists involved, but they adopt a multidisciplinary approach that sees them all working together to move the ball closer to the goal line, score and win. You could say that Agile treats development like a true team sport, rather than a process” he adds.

Moreover, although Scrum began as a software development methodology, it is an approach that is applicable across multiple industries. Sanders explains that Scrum is an intentionally incomplete framework which allows teams in a range of sectors to make it work in their specific context.

Horizontal vs vertical

Agile methods are about working together and being open, yet it seems like a principle that many corporations are unable to ‘get’. Sanders suggests that pride, ego and self-interest all play a role, but the biggest problem for large enterprises is the vertical power structure that exists within these entities.

“Most large organisations adopt a top-down, highly controlled approach to its employees, something akin to micro-management which coalesces power at the top of the organisation. However, Agile demands an environment that gives people the space in which to thrive. Agile is all about developing a growth mind-set whereby you give people goals, you demonstrate trust in them and – most crucially – you are prepared to let them make mistakes, in order to learn.”

“Of course, such an approach requires a radical approach to management, something that steers in a very different direction to the traditional hierarchical approach. Instead, it needs leadership that is dynamic and encourages growth for its people by giving employees the opportunity make decisions and to control their own destiny.”

It needs to be remembered, however, that a change in management style is only one aspect of this. There are certain employee personality types that simply cannot handle the ultimate responsibility that comes with this ultimate freedom. Some people are comfortable to not have to make decisions, being told what to do.

Overcoming the old ways

“Enterprises are sometimes guilty of adopting the language of Agile, but without the mind-set that goes along with it. Obviously, actions speak louder than words.

In addition, he adds, one often sees larger organisations acquiring smaller, Agile businesses, only for these entities to no longer be able to do what they did before nearly as well, due to being under the corporate yoke.

“You could make a good comparison between these large, hierarchically-focused enterprises and the dinosaurs, which were robust, strong and dominated the landscape for many years. However, when the ecosystem changed rapidly, they were unable to adapt and thus died out. Agile companies, on the other hand, are like the small mammals that were resilient enough to withstand major change and thus survived and thrived.”

Sanders says that the speed at which technology is driving changes to the business ecosystem now means that resilience and agility is the key to long-term survival. The one positive for businesses is that there are an increasing number of growth-minded leaders in organisations, who tend to be more receptive to the kinds of changes an Agile culture demands.

“The same goes for employees. We are starting to see a contemporary workforce – thanks to the sharing economy and the like – that focuses more on purpose-driven work, so their mind-set is already structured for Agile.”

Driving change

Sanders points out that in order to drive Agile change within an organisation, you need buy-in from leadership, and this doesn’t always come when you have short-term profit driven people in charge with a tendency to cling to power. Therefore, you will have to shift to being purpose driven and hire the right people to suit.

“Of course, this doesn’t mean firing all your top management – ideally try implementing an Agile approach in order to best understand who appreciates the new mind-set and can adapt to it. These you keep, but you want to consider bringing in more appropriate people to replace those who cannot change.”

In fact, he says, any company attempting to transform their people to be Agile will need to be prepared to lose around 30% of its people. This includes not only the management, but also those employees who prefer the hierarchical structure.

“It is also important to remember that when hiring new people, it is vital to focus, at least in part, on their personalities, as you want people that will change the organisation, rather than ones that will allow the organisation to change them.”

So your business is prepared to replace 30% of its workforce, and you are willing to disseminate the organisation’s power more freely, rather than holding onto it – what are the real benefits of becoming Agile?

“There are many advantages to becoming an Agile organisation. Your business will achieve a faster time to market, you should produce higher quality products, you will have a more engaged workforce, it will create increased stakeholder engagement and involvement (which creates more transparency throughout the process) and it will enable more predictable costs while also improving your company’s flexibility.”

“When done right, the people involved in an Agile business enjoy working together and are excited about creating things that other people enjoy using. And happy people build better products too, because when we have joy in what we do, the joy shows in the end result. Agile is about engendering passion in your people, because once you have passion, then profit will follow,” concludes Sanders.