If you ask organizational leaders struggling with digital transformation what they think "agile business" is it’s likely you'll get as many answers as people asked. Agile means many different things to many different people.

However, for organizations that are looking to move from traditional business to an agile business model — where flexibility and rapid response times are key components — really understanding agility is key.

Related Article: Applying Agile Practices to Business is Harder Than It Looks

Agile Business Trends

A great deal has been written about moving from a traditional to an agile model, but global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s blog post, The Five Trademarks of Agile organizations, sums it up nicely. The piece reads: “We find the machine paradigm shifting in the face of the organizational challenges brought by the “digital revolution” that is transforming industries, economies and societies.” This is best summed up by four trends:

  1. All stakeholders’ demand patterns are evolving rapidly.
  2. Established businesses and industries are being commoditized or replaced through digitization.
  3. Accelerating digitization and democratization of information.
  4. Organizations need a distinctive value proposition to acquire — and retain — the best talent.

“When pressure is applied, the agile organization reacts by being more than just robust; performance actually improves as more pressure is exerted,” the report adds.

For practical purposes, GPI, a process, IT consulting and software development specialist explains that for businesses, agile business modeling is a new, lightweight approach that combines business development with agile principles to build a flexible organization capable of reacting fast to unpredictable changes. It's a roadmap to prevent chaos. Agile business development puts the client experience at the heart of the work strategy based on 3 concepts:

  1. Individuals have growth mindsets and are allowed flexibility, continually focusing on improving the delivery process.
  2. Teams and groups have strong communication skills, allowing them to adjust rapidly.
  3. The entire organization is willing to respond and adapt its structures and processes.

The Agile ‘Movement’

Building software projects rapidly is one of the key attributes of agile development, said Rob Zuber, CircleCI CTO. In his organizations and others, agile is a movement, he explained, and like all movements, it’s easy to become emotionally invested without understanding everything about it. It doesn’t help that “agile” is also just a normal word that means something simpler than an "entire movement."

The agile methodology is a reaction to — and revision of — a way of doing things that developers didn’t think was working. It irked enough of them that they had to retreat to a safe space to collect their thoughts on the matter. What came out of that was a list of principles that weren’t themselves processes, but could be used to generate processes.

And that’s the larger theme here: the mission of this gathering was to help people change the way they thought about developing software. Instead of a product to be manufactured, code should be an art to be crafted. That subtle difference implies a host of alternate strategies, such as timeboxing, pair programming and test-driven development (TDD). “Applying those principles to business development and the workplace requires companies to rid themselves of the hierarchies that block development,” he said. “When information is only shared from the top-down, miscommunications abound, the overall vision of a project is watered-down, and a lack of trust develops within the entire organization.”

Agile in the Digital Workplace

For agile to be effective in the digital workplace there are two key elements, said Bart Mroz, CEO of digital commerce consultancy SUMO Heavy.

  1. Open Communications: An agile workplace offers open communication. While there may be an organizational structure in place, everyone has a clear understanding of their roles and the ways they contribute to the overall mission of the company. When individual employees feel appreciated and trusted, they are not only more efficient, but the quality of their work improves as well.
  2. Collaborative Environment: While working in teams can be very productive, the “divide and conquer” mentality is not necessarily conducive to all projects — especially ones that require everyone in the organization’s efforts. By fostering a collaborative, creative environment that welcomes good ideas wherever they come from, problems can be solved much faster and solutions that may not have otherwise come about are heard. This leads to a much more agile and productive work environment.

While technology plays an instrumental role in the workplace, having too many systems, tools and platforms can weigh a company down. “The rise of SaaS solutions has led to many companies adopting them whether or not they’re compatible with their existing systems. In other words, only taking advantage of the right technology can actually make a company more agile,” he said.

Learning Opportunities

Agile’s Financial Precedents

David Jordan, vice president and global head of consulting and services integration at Tata Consultancy Services, pointed out that there are also financial precedents too. He said digital innovation can take the risk out of big capital expenditure programs by breaking them down into what we call minimally viable products (MVPs). MVPs allow you to “take a new product or service from concept to real-world application faster, and then learn from the market's reaction how to improve it — or to even abandon the project, if it's clearly not delivering on the objectives. Put another way, MVPs are about de-risking the beast,” he said.

He said the cloud, open source systems and agile methodologies have made organizations less beholden to a single vendor's approach than in the past, digital technologies are empowering enterprises to become more flexible and experimental with less fear of negative consequences. Risk can be reversed, or recovered from with lesser impact on time and money.

Companies today are required to move faster than ever before. This is a direct result from increasingly global competition and evolving customer expectations. Customers now expect companies to be fully digitally transformed and able to give those personalized products, services and experiences, on-demand.

This is driving the adoption of agile methodologies across nearly every department. Embracing agile has more or less become a requisite for success in meeting, let alone, surpassing customer expectations today,” said Andrew Filev, founder and CEO of Wrike.

Agile and Digital Platforms

An agile workplace requires a central collaborative work management platform for connecting people, systems, and managing processes throughout the organization. One way of providing that is through a central platform for everyone at the company, this is key because just about any project today requires cross-functional collaboration. A unified digital workplace also allows companies to harness the power of collective intelligence to achieve more, faster. Siloed systems just won't cut it anymore, Filev said.

An agile workplace also requires transparency. Transparency afforded by a unified digital workplace gives senior leaders an instant snapshot into project statuses or an entire division with just a few clicks. “With projects involving multiple teams and stakeholders managing a variety of competing priorities, a single collaborative work management platform ensures transparency and accountability,” he said.

By having a complete picture of projects, companies can react quickly to changes and make informed decisions rapidly — imperative to both customer satisfaction and staying ahead of the competition.”