How to use Agile beyond software to help your business transform

Natalia Plewniok
How to use Agile beyond software to help your business transform

In the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of software engineers noticed a new pattern emerging. They experienced greater success with their teams when working in increments and iterations. This conflicted with the trend at the time which was to use a waterfall approach with multiple handoffs and stage gates.

In 2001, 17 of these engineers gathered and agreed on the common points between the range of disciplines they had created such as Scrum, Extreme Programming, Crystal Clear to name a few. These common points were systematised into 4 values and 12 principles. They were named the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

The truth is, they were not the first people to notice these trends. Even though their shared experience was in software, many of the insights were drawn from advances in the automotive and manufacturing industries. You can follow the thread back to Lean thinking popularised in the 1950s. Before that you can find connection with the Toyota Production System, Edward Deming’s Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles, and even the success of Bell Labs in the 1930s with Walter Shewhart’s iterative and incremental-development methodology.

Some even connect Agile with the scientific method made famous by Galileo, Archimedes, and codified by Frances Bacon in 1620.

While the Agile Manifesto was written for software, Agile’s origins extend far beyond software. Many teams outside of software now apply the manifesto to their work. Examples of Agile teams can be found across all industries from the heavy industries like oil and gas all the way to the service industry.

Before we look at some real-life examples of non-software Agile teams, let’s first understand why Agile has become so popular outside of IT.

Why do non-software teams use Agile?

The 4 values and 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto are a powerful resource to understand the benefits of Agile. If you make a simple switch of the word ‘software’ to ‘product’ you can see how these apply to non-software teams. However, after 20 years of companies’ experience using Agile, there are more compelling reasons why non-software teams use Agile. This is a quick overview of our top 4 reasons why 81% of organisations have started an Agile transformation in the last 3 years.

1. Survivability and resilience

Digital disruption has threatened businesses in all sectors and industries. Notorious examples are Airbnb, Uber, and Netflix. As the speed of change has accelerated exponentially, companies need to be Agile to not just survive but become resilient to continued disruption.

The benefits of Agile are most clearly seen when used for complex work in uncertain and dynamic environments. Using an Agile approach reduces the risks by making it easy to adapt to new information.

2. Engagement, alignment, and goal strategy

An Agile approach improves focus on value through close customer collaboration and feedback.

This focus on value creates clear goals to align around. It also empowers employees to make data-driven decisions and learn rapidly which improves employee engagement.

3. Strategy execution excellence

Strategy is an important foundation of every business. This includes clarity of your destination, desired outcomes, and a plan to get there. However, the real challenge is operationalizing the strategy from a high-level vision to daily tasks.

An Agile approach that is incremental, iterative, and value-driven can help you do that. By drawing on a variety of practices, an Agile approach can assure alignment and execution on all organisational levels.

4. High performing teams

In a study of 21 teams using Agile outside of software development, the primary benefit was the creation of high-performing teams.

An Agile approach offers a collaborative way to manage work across industry and project types. This leads to gains in both efficiency and effectiveness of work delivered.

On top of this Agile puts customers at the forefront of decision-making. This both strengthens relationships and creates high-quality customer experiences.

5. Innovation

With the rapid disruption taking place across industries Agile provides the answer to balancing control with innovation and creativity. With the ability to rapidly adapt, an Agile approach includes frequent feedback so successful products are delivered faster and with higher quality.

Real-life examples of non-software Agile teams

From art galleries to aerospace, there is no shortage of Agile teams outside of IT. Here are a few examples to show what is possible and how Agile translates beyond software development.

Example of Agile teams in the energy sector

In the past 5 years, most of the major players in the energy sector have seen the benefit of agility. You will find examples of Agile teams at companies like Exxon, Shell, Total, and bp.

There is also a growing number of Agile teams and transformations taking place in oil and gas partner and service companies like ConocoPhillips and Halliburton.

The scale and legacy of these organisations may seem like the antithesis of an Agile environment. But when you look at the market conditions:

  • high price volatility,
  • growing social concerns on environmental impact,
  • and technological advances,

you’ll see why the energy sector is motivated to reorganise into an Agile operating model. It can even be seen in the shift of name from oil and gas to energy sector to better represent the advancements in the industry.

While there are plenty of examples of improvements through digital and technological advancements, even traditional business has benefited from agility.

A press release from bp’s regional president in the North Sea states the success of a safe, under budget, and ahead of schedule oil field was due to an “Agile approach to planning and execution.”

The success of these Agile teams has inspired a company-wide Agile transformation to accelerate the goal of becoming a net-zero carbon company.

Example of Agile teams in defence manufacturing

Advancements in manufacturing were an early inspiration for Agile. A paper that inspired the Scrum framework, “The New New Product Development Game” was a study on manufacturing companies achieving success with cross-functional teams working in a ‘rugby approach’ as opposed to waterfall handoffs.

Examples were given on manufacturing successes with copiers at Fuji-Xerox, automobile engines at Honda, and cameras at Canon.

Now manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and defence manufacturer, openly advertise their Agile approach. They credit agility for their ability to adapt quickly and stay ahead of rapidly evolving threats.

But the history of agility at Lockheed Martin can be traced back to their famous Skunk Works team established in 1943. The 14 rules the team followed are clearly an Agile approach. With this approach, they were able to design and manufacture the cutting edge U2 reconnaissance plan in 6 months, where it would normally have taken many years.

Example of Agile teams in financial services

With the significant disruption due to the rise of fintech companies, all financial services know they need an Agile approach to satisfy their customers and stay in business.

American Express applied Agile to their customer service team. On top of the common benefits of better collaboration and communication, they saw specific results tracking customer complaints and educating their customers.

Through improved tracking of customer complaints, the American Express customer service team saw opportunities for innovation.

More than that, they collaborated directly with their customers through education, creating better relationships. This paid off during the COVID-19 pandemic when American Express ranked number one in the J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Study.

How to get started with Agile outside of software

There are many frameworks and practices that can help teams work in Agile ways. At Meirik we recommend a pragmatic approach to Agile frameworks that starts with a clear understanding of your vision and goals.

The Agile values and principles from the manifesto are a helpful place to start. Use them to truly reimagine your work in Agile ways and enjoy the benefits.

Agile goes far beyond software. It’s a modern-day system to apply the scientific method in these increasingly uncertain, volatile, and fast-changing times.

Many teams outside of software have enjoyed the benefits of an Agile approach with improved performance, innovation, and customer satisfaction.

If you’d like help trying an Agile approach in your company or team, reach out to our international team of seasoned consultants, coaches, and trainers - here.

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