With the current rate of technology and communication—which continues to increase every day—the world is moving at a much quicker pace. Customers are demanding almost instant results, and their wants and needs change rapidly. Successful companies are those that adapt to the changing demands of customers. Those who don’t (or can’t) struggle to stay relevant or even remain in business.
In the late 1990’s software companies began implementing project management strategies that allowed them to keep up with the ever-changing demands of their customers. These methods became known as “agile practices,” and in 2001 a group of software teams came up with what they called the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This manifesto is essentially a declaration of four values that lead to better software development:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
Not every business is a software development company with long-term or ongoing projects. But these values and the agile practices that follow can still help businesses respond to change and stay relevant. Along with the Manifesto, the development teams also came up with a set of 12 Principles, which I have reworded slightly in an attempt to make them more applicable to a wider scope of business types.
- Keep customer satisfaction a top priority.
This probably goes without saying since a business would not stay afloat for long if it isn’t paying attention to what its customers want. However, with the rapid changes in customer tastes and preferences, being in tune with your specific customer base and the general trends in your industry is even more important in today’s environment.
- Welcome change.
Very few companies today can get away with “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it…” and stay in business for long. Successful organizations do not cling to the old ways of doing things; they recognize the need for change and quickly implement a new path forward.
- Offer incremental product changes often.
Releasing small changes in a product or service serves two purposes. It communicates to your customers that you have noticed their changing preferences. It also keeps you from getting left behind your competitors who do make those frequent, small changes. Otherwise, by the time you’ve made a large-scale, significant change, your customers will have already moved along and switched to your more nimble competition.
- Business side and technical side must work together daily.
Those who work in marketing, finance, and executive management (business side) need to be in constant communication with those in research, product development, and production (technical side), so that changes can be implemented quickly.
- Teams must be provided with the environment, support, and tools to succeed.
When teams—whether research, development, or production—have the necessary resources to do their jobs, they are better equipped to produce a quality product or service. They are also more able to adapt to change and less likely to jump ship and move over to the competition.
- Have face-to-face conversations whenever possible.
Direct, face-to-face conversation is the most efficient and effective way to communicate. Questions can be answered, issues resolved, and decisions made more quickly. Project or functional teams of agile organizations will often implement the daily “stand-up meeting.” This is a ten- to fifteen-minute huddle during which priorities for the day are discussed, as well as any issues that anyone on the team needs to have resolved. These meetings are often held at the beginning of the day, but should be encouraged at any point in the day as needed. When face-to-face is not feasible, then direct chat or email can be used. Written correspondence such as memos or letters should be reserved for official documentation that does not require a prompt action or decision.
- A working product is the primary measure of progress.
The easiest way to drive customers away is to offer a product that does not work. While you are trying to fix a detected flaw your customers are moving on to the competition. Before releasing a product to the public, you must test it internally to make sure it works. For updates to existing products, it is much better to release small, incremental updates that work rather than a large update that has parts that don’t function as intended.
- Agile processes promote sustainability.
If you implement agile processes (incremental updates, cooperative efforts, adequate resources, effective communication, and product testing) then your team will be more able to work at a pace that will allow quick responses to change. These processes can also enable teams to sustain that pace indefinitely.
- Continuous attention to detail and quality enhances agility.
Everyone in the organization, from the entry-level line worker to the CEO, must be encouraged to observe product or process quality, report defects, and offer ideas for improvement.
- Keep it simple to maximize output.
Agile organizations don’t get bogged down with complicated communication or multi-step decision-making processes. All members of the organization should be able to quickly report an issue and get a decision on how to proceed almost immediately.
- Encourage self-organizing teams.
In larger organizations, when a new project emerges teams should be able to organize in a way that best meets the needs of the project requirements. If a particular skill or expertise is needed mid-project, the team should be able to easily bring a person with that skill or expertise onboard. And likewise, when a team member’s specific skill-set is no longer needed for the project, he/she should be able to easily move along to another project.
- Step back, reflect, and adjust.
At the end of each project or at regular intervals (monthly or quarterly) for long projects or for non-project-based teams, the team should gather to discuss what has been going well and what has not gone so well. By openly discussing both the high and low points of the project or time period, processes or behaviors can be adjusted so that improvements can be seen going forward. Failure to reflect on a regular basis often results in small problems or issues snowballing to the point that they are difficult to resolve.
How many of these principles does your business adhere to in some way? How can you work to implement those that you are not already following? Is your business agile enough to keep up with the ever-changing demands of your customers?