In the agile community I often hear “agile is a mindset” or “agile is a way of delivering software in iterations,” and I think a bigger point is missing. In general, I think the definition of agile for most people is incomplete. Before I elaborate, let me share a bit about organizations that are not agile and why it is they are not.
Built like a rock
Organizations start lean and mean because they have to be. If an organization survives its infancy, it can grow in scale and profit. Small companies become mid-size, and mid-size become large, and eventually multinational companies. Consolidating redundancies help reduce costs. Efficiencies at scale can improve profits, and for publicly traded companies its stock price will improve as a result. However, communication within that mid-size to large organization starts to break down. Silos form and middle managers become chiefs of fiefdoms protecting their self-interests which are not always in-line with company goals. Getting work done becomes harder in this fractured and distributed company. Responding to market opportunities and changing customer requests bogs down the people and the organization. Projects are more frequently late, quality suffers, innovation stalls. The impact might even be seen in profits gaining senior leadership attention. The organization has become rigid and inflexible.
Start stretching to be flexible
Being rigid is an unintentional result of years of excessive process, company policy, and leadership decisions. If “rigid” is a result, “agile” is a result. For a company to be agile, it must have a different mindset than it had to become rigid. This means improving communication, improving quality, delivering smaller projects faster, and reducing burdensome and unnecessary corporate policies wherever possible. It means focusing the people doing the work on company goals. It means reducing wasteful activities. In general, it’s about getting back to that lean and mean place where the company started. If you do this, if you can pivot more quickly when a bad idea is discovered, if you can innovate faster, if you can manage change faster, you are agile. If you weren’t already thinking this, your definition of Agile is incomplete
Do I need to worry?
For some companies, being rigid doesn’t affect their bottom line in a noticeable way. Without the sense of urgency, the need to change is low. Examples include monopolistic enterprises, those with government contracts, and companies that have few competitors with very large barriers to entry in their particular market. For everyone else, being agile is about survival. Other companies are figuring this out. They will be the next market dominators. If you want to be competitive in the future, you’ll have to be agile.
A new definition of agile
What should be the definition of agile? Agile is a result. Agile is not a philosophy, framework, or set of tools. How can organizations truly become agile if we don’t agree on the definition of the word? To spread these ideas deeper in organizations we need to speak broadly in terms of business results. Once we agree on the results we’re after as a company, it’s a lot easier to discuss how we intend to achieve those results through frameworks and practices designed to make us agile.
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