Being agile means you’re flexible, you're fast and you're adaptable. 

Agility is a necessity in the fast-moving world of software development, where the approach keeps you nimble enough to keep on innovating — which is what software should be all about.

But agility doesn’t apply only to software development. Creating a structure that allows for quick innovation is good for business, regardless of the industry or functional area in which you work. 

So how does an agile approach work and, perhaps more importantly, how can your company adopt it?

How Businesses Stay Agile

A lot goes into an agile approach, but its greatest use for businesses is in changing how you tackle problems and projects. 

Rather than defining the whole project and setting a “way forward,” an agile approach has you take things much more iteratively. From a practical standpoint, that means meeting as a team on a frequent and regular basis to share problems and successes, and then making improvements as needed.

Say that your executive team meets every two weeks — not for long, but long enough to look at their processes and output, and then decide on any needed changes. Everyone on the team has a say, and you get a chance to review and learn as you go. 

That’s known as being retrospective: What worked before? How is it different now? What do we do about it next? It’s really just another name — and another system — for continuous improvement.

Agile Allows Room to Experiment

An agile approach gives you the chance to try new methods, while constantly reviewing progress. 

Unfortunately, that’s completely foreign to the way in which most businesses run. All too often, businesses tack a review process onto the very end of a project, which often limits the amount of value that can be derived from lessons learned.

Being retrospective and only trying things for a short period means you can try and fail faster. That might feel inefficient at first, but in the long term, organizations are more likely to see a trend of continuous improvement — and innovation. Frequent review meetings will show some often surprising benefits:

  • You will have more opportunity to experiment. Because your trial to fix a problem or test a new idea may only last two weeks, the impacts to business are lower. If the trial doesn’t work, you can scrap it and try something else
  • You will be able to identify problems before they cost a lot of money or cause a lot of damage. With an open forum where people can make connections and agree on changes, improvements are a given and your work culture gains strength
  • Your estimates will be more accurate. When you examine processes and outputs more regularly, trends are quickly identified and consistency is easier to achieve
  • Individual team members will develop confidence, gaining a better view of the company and the value of the contributions they make to it

How to Flex Your Agile Muscle

You may first think, “I don’t have time for all this.” After all, this could come off as a little too self-indulgent, a little too much like navel-gazing. 

Taking an agile approach to work, however, takes a great deal of discipline. Just like you need regular exercise to keep your body agile, making your business agile requires commitment. But like exercise, that commitment to an agile approach pays ample dividends in the end.

You might be working in a traditionally rigid company, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a start on your own team’s agility. How can you make an agile approach work?

  1. Begin with the discipline of regular and frequent meetings. Discuss your problems and pain points.
  2. Think about the best set-up for inclusiveness — a round table, post-it notes or a white board.
  3. Leave hierarchy at the door. For the duration of the meeting, everyone is equal with an equal opportunity to contribute without interruption.
  4. Discuss process, not people.
  5. Keep each meeting short. Raise multiple issues to begin with, then agree on a few clear actions that should be accomplished right away.
  6. Share all actions — don’t leave everything to one person to handle.
  7. Meet again in two weeks. Discuss the actions of the previous meeting and determine which ones worked (as well as which ones need to be reconsidered or require a different course of action).
  8. Repeat steps 3 through 7 and build a rich, agile team culture.
  9. Don’t ask permission, just do it. When you’ve run long enough to show some genuine business benefits, take your results to senior management.

The Retrospective Effect

From the start, you can expect a range of outcomes from your meetings. Some may be big issues, but many are about your team culture — how you work together and how you problem-solve. Often, you don’t see any of these things unless you take the time to stop and look, regularly and often. In other words, be agile.

Title image Atlas Green