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Agile Methodologies: A Beginner’s Guide

Thinking about implementing Agile methodologies in your organization? You aren’t alone. The Agile methodology was originally developed by software developers as a better process for managing their work, but today, it’s used in disciplines from marketing to customer success and beyond.

Organizations can scale Agile by planning work, coordinating teams, and visualizing flow across teams, products, and value streams.
Organizations can scale Agile by planning work, coordinating teams, and visualizing flow across teams, products, and value streams.

Regardless of where you are in your path towards agility, here’s an overview of the basic ideas behind Agile, and how you can apply these ideas to improve work quality and deliver value faster.

Introduction: Agile Methodologies Defined

Before we dive into the many benefits of the various Agile methodologies, let’s take a moment to define what it means to be Agile. It’s worth clarifying, because there is a difference between Agile (the methodology) and business agility (the term that describes organizations that are able to maintain stability while rapidly responding to internal and external changes). The term “business agility” can also be used to describe scaling Agile outside of IT.

You can be (lowercase) agile without being Agile, and you can technically be practicing Agile without truly experiencing agility.

First, let’s define agile plainly. Dictionary.com defines agility (of any kind) as, “…the power of moving quickly and easily; nimbleness,” with this secondary definition: “the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly; intellectual acuity.”

Meanwhile, the (uppercase) Agile methodology describes the specific set of practices, values, and beliefs that aim to enable business agility. We like to use the definition of business agility created by researchers of McKinsey & Company, who defined the term as “…the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities…”

To add to the fun, not all organizations practicing Agile will refer to it by this name. There are many Agile methodologies (or methodologies that closely align with Agile principles) that go by other names: Lean, Kanban, Scrum, and Scrumban, among others. Since Agile is typically considered to be a team-level practice, there are also additional techniques and frameworks (built upon some of these methodologies) designed specifically for scaling Agile across the enterprise, such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®), Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD), [email protected], and others.

So, to summarize: The purpose of implementing any Agile methodology is to increase your business’ agility. It’s how you go about trying to achieve agility that determines whether or not you are practicing Agile. There are many methodologies that could be considered Agile methodologies, as well as many frameworks that can be utilized to effectively scale Agile across organizations.

Who Practices Agile Methodologies?

Agile was created by a group of software developers who were frustrated by the prevailing methods of workflow management, which had largely been adapted from traditional manufacturing practices.

The practice that we now know as Agile was the product of a slow evolution of traditional workflow management methods, plus the innovation of some forward-thinking software developers. These developers convened in 2001 to formally draft new, better guidelines for software development.

At this summit, they wrote what is now known as the Agile Manifesto: A set of guiding principles for the Agile methodology that has remained relevant over time. The core values of Agile expressed in the Agile Manifesto include:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

These guiding principles have been expanded over time, to be applicable to teams in a wide variety of industries, as we’ll explain more in the next section.

With the rise of scaling methodologies like SAFe®, Agile practices are now used to increase visibility, promote process improvement, and increase speed of innovation at every level in the organization.

Core Values of Agile Methodologies

Let’s dive a bit deeper into how the four core values stated in the Agile Manifesto are applied in Agile practices today.

Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

While no one will say that having helpful, efficient processes and tools isn’t valuable in increasing the agility of your team, Agile practices place greater emphasis on individuals and interactions than processes and tools.

Here’s why: Many of the methods before Agile relied heavily on the ceremony and discipline of a highly regimented workflow management system to maintain control over people. You might recognize this in your own workplace as unnecessarily strict rules about where or how people work, dogmatic use of a ‘team building’ software instead of honest conversations, or other ways of maintaining control over people that don’t produce positive (financial or cultural) results.

Instead, Agile values effective collaboration between people, with processes and tools only serving to support that collaboration. Put another way, Agile encourages humans to leverage the skills that only we as humans have: emotional intelligence, creative problem-solving, and critical thinking. Tools and processes are great for keeping us organized and saving time, but they should only serve as a way to automate tedious, repeatable tasks or share information – not take the place of real human interactions.

Regardless of your industry, you can think of this value when facing any decision that might require the nuance and intimacy of a face-to-face conversation: Is this something that requires my emotional intelligence, critical thinking, or creative problem-solving?

If not, automate away. If a face-to-face, human interaction would provide you with more value, then make space for that.

Working (Software) Over Comprehensive Documentation

Although the inclusion of the word “software” in this value might sound software-specific, it actually contains a valuable concept that can be applied to virtually any type of work. This value intends to increase the pace of the development of anything (whether that’s software, a service, a consumer product, or any other offering), by emphasizing having a working product as a primary goal.

Here’s why: Before Agile, software development methods required teams to create extensive documentation for everything they did.

While disciplined and responsible, the problem with this method is that it is painstakingly slow. Teams usually wouldn’t release products until they were fully built and documented, only to learn hours after releasing them into the market that there were multiple major issues that required more building and more documentation.

In Agile, a working product, whether that product is an app, a website, or a marketing campaign, is more valuable than a perfect plan for that product.

Why? Because this gives your team infinitely more opportunity to collect and incorporate user feedback (more on this in the next section). Agile teams responsibly, but ambitiously, aim to launch things as soon as they’re ready, in as small of chunks as possible, so that they can collect more user feedback and continue to make the product better.

This value guides not only how products are created, but also how Agile teams plan, validate ideas, and delegate work.

Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation

Regardless of your industry, working with your customer throughout the development process is a key value in Agile methodology, which is done by planning and producing work in small batches, and then testing that work in the market.

Agile organizations aim to amplify the voice of the customer and use it to guide product strategy and execution throughout the development process. This is far different than the “wait and see” approach traditionally used by organizations, in which products are created first (based on assumptions about the customer) and then user feedback is collected once the product is built and released (when it’s too late to incorporate).

Whether your customer is external (an actual paying customer) or internal (your boss, who’s waiting on that presentation you’re preparing), it’s always smart to gather and incorporate feedback throughout the “development” process to ensure that the thing you’re creating is the thing they want.

Working with customers throughout the development process, instead of simply at the beginning or end of an engagement, is not only a better strategy for increasing customer satisfaction, it’s also a much more efficient and cost-effective approach to development.

Responding to Change Over Following a Plan

One of the primary benefits of practicing Agile methodologies is the ability to rapidly respond to changes. Before Agile and its related methods were created, software development was managed the way other types of work were managed at that time: In long development cycles, with lots of upfront planning, little room for changes, and tightly prescribed timelines for each phase of work. You can probably point to areas of your business where things are handled this way.

The problem is, even with the most data-driven estimates, teams won’t always be able to deliver work according to a specific schedule. Changes in the team, data, weather, economy, or requirements can all impact the progress of a piece of work. Not to mention, creating long-term plans (and failing to re-evaluate them over time) means you’re likely not focused on listening to what your market is telling you as you’re developing it.

Agile teams realize that sticking to the plan at all costs often means ignoring valuable information and insights from the market. Agile organizations use more dynamic planning and budgeting practices to better align these practices with Lean and Agile delivery.

Benefits of Agile Methodologies

If you’re reading this guide, it’s probably because you’re interested in realizing the benefits of Agile in your team or organization. We’ve touched on some of the benefits of Agile already in this guide, but we’ll expand on them here. Whether your goal is to increase innovation in your organization, enable more proactive solution development, or simply improve the efficiency of your planning/workflow management, Agile can help.

Agile can enable:Through:
More efficient planning and workflow managementEncouraging the adoption of more dynamic funding/cost-accounting and project management methods
Greater visibility across the organizationPromoting the use of visual management tools
Greater alignment of team activities with organizational strategyStimulating regular conversations around strategy with Program Increment (PI) planning, and the use of Agile metrics like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
Increase ability to respond to changes in the marketShorter planning cycles, and more adaptive governance and funding practices
Proactive, rather than reactive, solution developmentAn emphasis on customer collaboration and feedback
Better ability to predict and respond to market disruptionContinuously gathering customer feedback; operating in short feedback loops
Increased stability/sustainability of an organizationDevelopment of long-lived, self-sustaining teams

How Can Technology Support Agile Methodologies?

A Lean and Agile Delivery solution can help teams using any process – Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban, or others – to achieve continuous flow of value and automate deli
A Lean and Agile Delivery solution can help teams using any process – Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban, or others – to achieve continuous flow of value and automate deli

One of the goals most organizations have for their Agile implementation is the ability to connect and coordinate the efforts of various teams throughout the organization. Typically, in organizations, teams are organized into functional silos, with different objectives and goals, working concurrently but not necessarily in sync with each other. It’s especially difficult to coordinate the activities of these teams when they’re all using different tools to manage their work.

It becomes fairly obvious when trying to scale Agile that some standardization of tools is necessary to enable coordination across teams and value streams. However, it would be unwise to try to force teams across a variety of disciplines to abandon the tools they know in favor of one that might not be purpose-built for their needs (a customer support team, for example, will have different needs than IT ops).

However, there are tools that can help bridge the communication gaps between the tools used across an organization, to provide visibility into the big picture without sacrificing the level of detail teams need to do their daily work. With the rise of Agile has come a growing number of enterprise Agile tools, designed to enable Lean and Agile delivery across complex organizations.

What to Look for in an Agile Software Solution

When looking for an Agile software solution, it’s important to keep in mind your overall goals for your Agile implementation. Are you looking for a team-level tool to help your team get its feet wet with Agile, or a tool to help you manage the planning, coordination, and dependency management involved in scaling Agile? This not only provides insight into the type of tool you should select, but also how your organization will use that tool.

Although the specific criteria to look for will vary depending on the size, maturity, and goals of your organization, be sure that your Agile software solution includes the following:

  • Visual management
  • Lean and Agile metrics
  • Hierarchical structure
  • Ability to integrate with existing tools
  • Enables communication
  • Easy to update and interact with

The practice of Agile is one of continuous improvement. It is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, approach, that over time can help your team or organization create more value, faster and more reliably than ever before.

Meet our author

Brook Appelbaum

Director of Product Marketing

Brook Appelbaum is the Director of Product Marketing for Planview’s Lean and Agile Delivery Solution. With nearly 20 years of marketing experience, Brook has led many different product and digital marketing teams. However, her favorite leadership role is that of a Product Owner. As part of an Agile marketing team inside Planview, Brook drives the campaign and product marketing strategy for the Lean and Agile Delivery Solution. And she thinks LeanKit is the coolest.

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