Agile Revisited: Things We’ve Forgotten About the Agile Methodology

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By now, anyone who’s spent some time in the software development space has likely at least heard of the Agile methodology. But even those of us who are well-versed in Agile principles may have forgotten a few things over the years. And as we head into the next decade, it’s a good time to revisit the Agile methodology to see how it’s evolved as work styles have changed.

The Agile Origin Story

Agile software development principles were created in 2001 as the outcome of the Agile Manifesto, a document written by 17 tech thought leaders during a Utah ski retreat. However, the Agile way of thinking has its roots further back.

In the 1950s, Toyota realized that the standard keep-the-assembly-line-moving management philosophy had inadvertently lead to poor quality and wasted efforts. Defective cars would often go on to be fully assembled, only to be disassembled to address the defects. Based on this insight, Toyota wanted to introduce a radical process change to address quality issues immediately. To do so, the manufacturer installed a cord on the shop floor that would bring the entire production line to a halt when pulled, and it gave employees the right to pull it any time. However, the cost to halt the production line was $15K a minute, and that made employees afraid to use the cord due to fear of losing their jobs. Eventually, though, employees began pulling the cord, which improved quality and reduced costs. 

The magic ingredient that made the whole idea work was trust. Employees needed to trust that they would not be ridiculed or measured against a limit for pulling the cord. Critically, it was up to management to demonstrate this trust before employees could buy into it.

Agile Thinking Hasn’t Always Kept Up with New Work Styles

Since Toyota’s cord and even the creation of the Agile Manifesto, Agile principles have evolved. But not all of these principles have held up well against changing work styles, largely due to trust issues.

Consider the Scrum methodology. Scrum is famous for its daily standup and the recommendation to work co-located and face-to-face. Originally, daily standups were supposed to be conducted while everyone was standing because this encouraged people to be brief with their updates. Meanwhile, co-location was intended to encourage informal collaboration.

Today, those principles are difficult to achieve. Most of us work with international teams that are in different timezones. We work from home or from co-working spaces, collaborate via messaging apps and interact during scheduled conference calls. If we’re lucky, some people will turn on their cameras. Without the ability to see each other, it is very difficult to develop trust organically. We can’t pick up on typical social signals such as body language cues, subtle facial or verbal gestures, or outright “Do Not Disturb” vibes. And because the situation lacks trust, we often default to defensive behavior. Somewhat ironically, one of the original Toyota approaches was to trust only what the eyes can see.

This lack of trust has driven teams to use more traditional project management techniques, such as adhering to strict work plans and frequent teleconference meetings to provide detailed updates. We end up documenting more and more to replace the informal alignment of Scrum. But these traditional approaches aren’t necessarily better. Instead, Agile needs to adapt to the realities of today’s work environment by offering new techniques to help encourage mutual respect and develop trust, even when we can’t see each other.

But There is Proof Agile Can Evolve for the Modern Workforce

Before we give up on Agile principles, let’s see how they can work well in modern work environments.

Like Toyota, Disney was an early innovator of Agile concepts. The original Disney animations were hand drawn, making mistakes expensive to correct and changes costly to implement. In the 1930s, Disney came up with techniques to manage the effort required to produce animated films, including storyboarding and sharing early previews of rough sketches for animated scenes. The same techniques are still in use today even though the animation is fully digital. Following the Agile concept of “allowing those who are closest to the problem to solve the problem,” Disney empowers its lowest level animators to make key decisions regarding the work assigned. And this level of trust creates a breeding ground for creativity and innovative new techniques.

The Government of Canada has also successfully introduced Agile thinking into the modern workforce. In 2018, the Government of Canada updated its procurement methodology to be more Agile. Now, after the government issues an RFI, it picks several front-runners that get funding to produce fast prototypes. The front-runners then pitch their stories to win the bid by demonstrating working solutions. In this situation — in which winners get selected based on actual work — trust is earned and transparency is rewarded.

How Your Business Can Successfully Embrace Agile

Based on the various examples of Agile in current business practices, how can your organization better embrace the spirit of Agile in a modern work environment? Start here:

  • Don’t try to make everything Agile. Agile makes sense when the product or process at hand is already expected to evolve or needs to morph over time. It also makes sense if it offers a competitive advantage and the winning pot is big enough to be worth the risk. Agile does not make sense if your team is not willing or available to work this way or if the cost of a failed attempt is too big to be absorbed.
  • Start at the top. The transparency executives offer and the trust that is later rewarded takes time to cultivate. The same goes for every level of management down to the individual contributor. Avoid situations where executives give lip service to Agile on the one hand, but micromanage on the other hand. Set good examples, be good coaches and trust that your team will come up with answers instead of criticizing their work. Allow them to pull the cord and let them trust that their input will be heard.  
  • Don’t over-standardize. Innovation comes from experimentation. One of the best ways to help teams change to meet new needs is to allow them to self manage and come up with what works for them. If you allow your team to innovate, they will surprise you.
  • Lead with questions, not answers. Even if you are the subject matter expert, it’s still better to avoid telling team members directly how to do things. Giving orders is not leadership. Giving solutions is not teaching or coaching. Instead, ask questions like “What does success mean to you?” or “What do you think about this?”
  • Treat digital spaces like physical spaces. There are public spaces where noisy socialization and informal collaboration makes sense, and there are private spaces where focused work and formal meetings take place. Although nothing replaces face-to-face or co-location, we can use technology to create a sense of belonging and respect each other in digital spaces like we would in public spaces. For example, turn on the camera during teleconference meetings, put on headsets when working independently and avoid excessive messaging in collaboration apps.

Reimagining Agile in the Modern Workforce

As working styles continue to change, Agile thinking will need to adjust as well. But ultimately, being successful with Agile in any environment comes down to trust. Trust built on transparency and mutual respect at all levels of the organization will not only help support Agile principles, but also encourage the evolution of those principles as the workforce continues to evolve.

Poesy Chen

SVP, Delivery

Read more posts by Poesy Chen