“Agile” grows up, readies to take over your whole business

Agile, a software development methodology born back in 2001, has now entered the mainstream. According to a Forrester Research report issued last month, Agile is not only used in several of the world’s leading companies now but is being applied in areas beyond software development.

For those of you unfamiliar with Agile, it’s an approach to software development that is faster than the more traditional “waterfall” software development process. With the waterfall approach, which had its roots in the 1960s, projects went from requirements to design to implementation, etc, like steps in a waterfall. Each stage had to be finalized before the next could be started. The process would take years, and as a result, innovation, new product development, and system upgrades were curtailed.

Agile got its start in 2001 with the signing of the Agile Manifesto. It was created to deliver software projects faster, but also with an emphasis on more value. Today, almost all technology companies and businesses that leverage technology in their day-to-day operations have adopted the more efficient method of Agile, also known as Lean software development.

But as the Forrester report points out, Agile has now entered a new stage of its history. It is still very much about teams getting better at building software, but it’s also becoming more about moving the rest of the business forward. So today, there are two concurrent states of Agile. There is the traditional state where most companies are looking at Agile as the new software development approach and making statements like ‘we need to go agile’. And there’s the state where companies are applying Agile to areas within the organization such as, portfolio management, project management, vendor management, contracting, etc.

For example, one insurance company needed to quickly develop an application for its sales team and saw Agile as an enabler, but that’s where it began and ended. The company gave little thought as to how Agile could be applied elsewhere in the organization as a philosophy and operating principal.

However, another business, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, applies Agile across the entire life cycle of its business. The organization has embedded Agile practices from the idea management phase at the beginning of the life cycle through to the prioritization of value and to how the backlog and work-in-progress is formed. In other words, the same practices you would expect to see in only the application development layer are now present further upstream, bringing IT and business processes into greater alignment.

Using common Agile practices such as user stories, business value estimation and prioritization, and visual mapping at the forefront of the life cycle enables a smooth transition into the development stages later on. This is the preferred way of Agile – the direction in which it’s moving.

The next phase of Agile, the Agile of tomorrow, is going to have a strong focus on delivering business value across a larger landscape, including portfolio management, procurement, and business strategy.

The future of Agile will build on the existing improvements and involve a third set of practices designed to increase the amount of measurable value emerging from the value stream. New ways of dealing with the collaboration and integration between software development and IT operations (i.e. the system engineer and the systems administrator) and real continuous feedback are examples of these practices.

To maximize investment in Agile, businesses jumping on the Agile bandwagon today need to be aware of this trajectory and be ready to adopt these new practices.

Alex Adamopoulos is CEO of Emergn, a global IT services company that provides advisory, consultancy, delivery, and education services to drive IT change using Agile and Lean principles.