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Is Agile the future of work?

Last week, I was invited by my friend and colleague, Sally Elatta, to join a daylong think tank to tackle the question “What does performance management look like in an Agile environment?” Sally is the CEO and founder of Agile Transformation, a leader in helping organizations transform by implementing the agile methodology.

If you are asking yourself, “what the heck is agile?” that’s okay. While the agile methodology has existed in name since the publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, it’s largely existed in the domain of software development.  But, that is rapidly changing.

Here’s how wikipedia defines agile:

Agile software development describes a set of principles for software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing cross-functional teams.[1] It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.[2] These principles support the definition and continuing evolution of many software development methods.[3]

To better understand what it is and how it is being applied beyond software development, read this article from Forbes earlier this year, What is Agile?

The think tank Sally asked me to join included 25ish people and was a mixture of business leaders, Agile coaches, and HR from organizations who are currently using or implementing agile. This core of people was supplemented by a few of us with domain expertise in either HR (like me) or agile or both.

I entered the day knowing enough about agile to be intrigued, but not enough to even be dangerous. As I listened to the conversations about how agile worked, it started to become clear to me why some people are so excited about the potential to extend this methodology outside of software development.

It’s not about software development at all, it’s a completely different way of organizing and doing work. What excited me the most as I came to a deeper understanding of agile is some of the core principles that make it work and how that aligns with how work needs to evolve for the future.

A few examples:

  1. Self-organizing work teams.  Agile ensures that expected outcomes and requirements are crystal clear, but how that work gets done is entirely up to the team. This provides each team with the autonomy to solve problems and create solutions in the way they see as best. Based on what I heard, this autonomy is viewed as sacred in agile and it’s what makes the process so engaging for those involved.
  2. Cross-functional teams. Agile creates cross functional, dedicated teams to work together on projects. Bringing together those with diverse skills and perspectives makes for better work product. The act of dedicating these resources to the team to ensure focus and commitment impacts both the speed and quality of the end result
  3. Self-managing teams.  An agile team doesn’t have a manager, they don’t need one. Each member of the team has a specific role to play with specific accountabilities (including one person is the facilitator of the group). A high functioning agile team makes explicit agreements up front about how they will work together, what behavior they expect and how they will deal with feedback and conflict.  The traditional role of “manager” in an agile organization doesn’t exist because the need to control and manage resources doesn’t exist. Instead, a need for more coaches arises–those focused on elevating individuals to higher levels of performance.
  4. Real-time and ongoing feedback. Due to the nature of the dedicated team structure and the focus of the team (they are all working on the project simultaneously), feedback becomes a natural and required part of the process on a day to day basis. There’s also formal debriefs built into the process after work product is shipped.  Feedback is built into how the work is done.
  5. Continuous iteration and calibration. The traditional model of work favors long project cycles: plan the project, work the plan for months, deliver the outcome.  The problem is that things are changing so fast in today’s environment that it’s not uncommon for the outcomes of this approach to be obsolete before they are event delivered.  Agile is iterative and work is done in shorter cycles called sprints. There’s constant testing, feedback and calibration to ensure that the work they are doing is aligned to meet the changing needs it is intended to satisfy.

I am left pondering if agile is the future of work. It’s proven extremely effective in software development and the early indications is that it can be effective in many other domains. But, to realize it’s potential is to understand that this isn’t simply a change of approach, it is the equivalent of installing an entirely different operating system within your organization. Everything changes: leadership, management, HR.

I know I am planning to dig in and learn more. I hope you will as well.

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Jason Lauritsen