Agile: More Than Just a Buzzword

Avatar by Chelsea Olson Published Feb 19, 2019 Last updated Feb 19, 2019

What does it mean to be agile? The word calls upon images of dexterity, flexibility, and even grace. Someone who is agile can adapt to changing situations and expectations, giving them the ability to deliver high-quality results even when things do not go as planned—or even when the whole plan changes. 

You may have been hearing the word agile crop up more and more when it comes to training, professional development, and assembling teams to tackle projects. While you might be tempted to think of it as just another buzzword that comes and goes, it’s really important to understand what the principles of agility mean if you want to position yourself to deliver the types of results professionals will be looking for in our current climate of change. 

Let’s take a closer look at the history of the Agile Method and what it looks like in practice. 

What is the Agile Method? 

To understand the way that the word agile is used today, we have to start with a little history. In 1970, software developer expert Dr. Winston W. Royce published a paper titled “Managing the Development of Large Software Systems.” In this paper, he laid out a system of thinking about software development that has since been referred to as the Agile Method. This method has gone on to inform the methods in which development teams work on software creation up to and including the present day. 

While Dr. Royce’s initial advice was specifically about the creation of software systems, the principles that have grown from his important text are far-reaching and have impacted the way that we discuss complex processes across multiple disciplines. Today, the Agile Method can be applied to any complex process in which an individual or team needs to work through steps to get to the desired result. 

The influence of the Agile Method on modern-day teams and approaches is made clear when a team of 17 methodologists worked together in 2001 to create the Agile Software Development Alliance. Together, they laid out four core Agile values

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Clearly, these principles are not limited to the realm of software development, and it is with these core ideas in mind that we can further explore what being agile means for anyone working on a complex project. 

How does an agile team/individual function? 

An individual or team that is agile functions in a way that gets consistently high-quality results even if the parameters of the project change once the process has been put into place. The way that they are able to do this is by having a system that values communication, collaboration, and validation.

Open communication is a key principle of an agile work environment. It is difficult (perhaps even impossible) to adapt the project to the organization’s needs if those needs are being communicated unclearly or in an untimely manner. Frequent, meaningful communication is absolutely crucial. 

Likewise, an environment that rewards and encourages collaboration is necessary. If a team feels compelled to compete among themselves, an agile work environment will not be achieved. They need to feel free to share ideas, insights, and contributions in order to meet the changing needs of a task or project.

Finally, validation is important. Just because something can be changed quickly doesn’t mean that it is effective or high-quality. While the ability to meet changing demands is important, it cannot come at the expense of high standards and quality control. Successful agile teams have built-in mechanisms for continuous validation to ensure that what they are producing lives up to their high standards. 

How can we support agile environments? 

In order to create a more agile work environment, there are several considerations that can be made ranging from top-down policies to individual goals for personal and professional development. 

  • Engage knowledgeable people and give them autonomy. One of the most important aspects of an agile work environment is that people are empowered to make decisions for themselves. They aren’t beholden to a specific process when the process is not working, and they feel free to innovate and experiment. This can only happen in an environment where people are trusted and trustworthy. It’s absolutely necessary to have a meaningful and efficient hiring process and then to trust that the people who have been hired are capable of doing their job well, giving them the space to put those skills into action. 
  • Have a strong base. In the software development world, agilists knew they needed to start with good code in order to experiment productively. The translation to other industries and disciplines is that individuals and teams need to start with strong processes before they start experimenting with them. The way to achieve this is to have tested processes for the most common demands developed, documented, and accessibly communicated.
  • Set up communication tools and use them. How are the team members going to communicate with each other? How often? These questions need to be answered, and the tools to make that communication easy and straightforward should be a top priority. Whether there will be weekly face-to-face meetings, traditional phone conferences, or dynamic online collaboration platforms put into use, the tools and the training to use them need to be available from day one of the project. 
  • Encourage professional development that promotes ability. Agile people are those that have strong communication skills, are self-disciplined, and can bounce back from setbacks and bumps in the road. Luckily, these are all skills that can be honed and refined through conscious training.

We live in a time of unprecedented change. The ability to respond dynamically and with agility is a key skill, and working to develop it is well worth the effort.