It’s not just for IT: all can be agile
Project Management Agile business started in information technology but its benefits are now being disseminated to some unlikely areas.
When the Agile Manifesto was issued at Salt Lake City in 2001, its main aim was to do something about the notorious failure rates of major IT projects.
Traditional 'waterfall' project management, under which products flowed from design to production in a logical, controllable way, was buckling under the complexity and uncertainties of software design. Its bureaucratic, document-driven nature meant products that were clearly inadequate were being delivered to customers because changing the design was prohibitively expensive and disruptive.
What Agile has done for IT
Steve Messenger, chairman of the Agile Business Consortium (one of the signatories of the Manifesto under its previous name, DSDM) explains: "People may think of IT as a science but it is more of an art, with very fuzzy problems at the start and you need a lot of feedback to solve them properly. IT projects were known for taking much longer than expected and not delivering, so people were saying there must be a better way."
Agile principles have revolutionised IT project management, with its focus on getting it right at every stage and allowing failed ideas to die; on empowering teams to work together towards clear goals; and constant communication with clients.
Now the idea is spreading far beyond high tech. The law, for example, a sector wedded to tradition. "We have worked with lawyers to create an agile contract," Messenger says. "Contracts in the past have been very prescriptive, saying you have to deliver all of this stuff in this time, whereas with agile you are saying there will be a certain minimum amount of stuff you need to deliver, and if there is time you will deliver more."
Financial control is another area where agile working may yield benefits. "One thing we are looking at in the Agile Business Consortium is the annual budget," says Messenger. "Does it make sense? Preparing it ties people up for months at a time, it makes it very hard to change what you can do in the following year so you are not very responsive to change. Small companies might be able to do without the annual budget. Larger companies could have a budget but look at it every quarter or every month and have the ability to change it."
The process of designing and building the corporation itself is now becoming agile, Messenger believes. "There is a movement called lean startup, which uses agile principles when setting up companies. Companies like Google and Amazon started out very much with an agile culture, all about empowered teams creating the intellectual property that would make the company successful."
Google in particular has continued the agile philosophy in its product development. "Google would put things out on their website as trials - if they fly, they get taken further. If not, they just disappear."
The ultimate agile idea may be Kickstarter, where new products are offered on the web at a discount for early adopters - only if enough money is raised can production start. Customers put their money on the line, the sort of feedback you don't get in a focus group.
"Kickstarter is a very agile idea, failing fast so you know if you have got a flyer or not very early on," Messenger says.