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If software development comes into your mind when someone mentions agile workflows, you’re not alone. But agile methodology got its start not in computers, but in the post-WWII Japanese automotive industry. Edward Deming is known as the forefather of agile for developing lean strategies and giving Toyota’s line workers the power to halt the line and troubleshoot the root cause of problems.
Since then, the iterative workflow characteristic of agile has proven itself superior to the traditional waterfall approach and is being applied more broadly beyond the technology space. Because agile practices allow companies to deliver products to clients or consumers in a consistently and with greater flexibility, businesses engaged in product development should embrace agile management practices throughout their entire organization.
Waterfall vs. agile product development
Traditional waterfall and agile methodologies stand in opposition to each other on basic levels. With waterfall, everything happens in a straight line. You set the goal, and your team has to finish one stage of the project before moving on to the next one. If any issues crop up, everyone has to go back, pinpoint what went wrong and make fixes before they can continue. The expectation is that you’ll have a deliverable at the end of each stage.
With agile, this all flips. Teams can work in sprints on different parts of the project simultaneously. Deliverables are not necessarily required at each point. Workers troubleshoot and make changes as they go.
Because agile allows for on-the-fly analysis and adjustments, it enjoys a strong advantage in that it allows you to readily adapt to whatever circumstances life and the world throw at your business. National Public Radio (NPR) demonstrates an example of this: The broadcast network initially took a waterfall approach to shows, investing heavily in programs they thought would work and doing big launches. When NPR ran into budget problems (as so many companies do), they took an agile approach and started doing small pilots on a more local level instead.
This let them gather feedback early and be more sure that the investment in the end product would pay off. This adaptability, combined with the emphasis on collaboration between empowered workers who own their own processes and results, means that agile methodologies contribute significantly to a company’s ability to operate with a clear purpose within the immediate needs of society.
Even though agile has proven itself in the real world through major non-tech corporations such as NPR, when it comes to approaching overall operations, 51% of organizations still rely on waterfall. Business schools also still teach long-term strategy building, and most investors still ask founders for a long-term vision before shelling out cash. Some organizations admittedly do well with the traditional approach because of the nature of their work, but many are only held back because waterfall can create a disconnect between the entire group and individual teams.
A disconnect that breaks the rhythm
What often happens in companies is that certain teams, such as the technology department, individually adopt agile methods. Those methods make sense for their specific tasks and skillsets. If the rest of the organization is not using agile, however, then the company and the individual team can get out of sync with timing and expectations. The agile team centers around short-term strategies, while executives are concerned with implementing a long-term plan. This disconnect usually means that the business doesn’t deliver to customers with the speed and quality people need, wastes resources and becomes less competitive.
One key to getting back in sync is looking at the cadence of meetings. Waterfall methodology sees companies setting their goal and then meeting regularly — usually once a month — to move forward. Those meetings often are informational; however, that means people have to have more meetings to do real planning. In agile, the pacing of meetings is based not on the larger end goal, but on the data that the organization sees coming in.
Looking at immediate data and circumstances with as-needed collaboration is crucial to survival when challenges hit. Consider the Covid-19 crisis. Many companies that persisted with a waterfall approach through the pandemic fell short of their targets. They weren’t capable of changing tactics or the primary goal as a way of staying afloat, so many of them had to make severe cuts or close down. Agile companies found new ways to deliver value, such as grocery stores adding delivery services, and they fared better as a result.
This doesn’t mean agile would have provided complete protection. But had the less responsive companies pivoted to an agile approach, they might have better minimized the negative impact the virus had: A business that missed a $10 million target might have made $7 million instead of $5 million. In the ideal response, agile not only would minimize loss, but would also facilitate growth.
Keep in mind here that a company’s financial plans bear directly on the perception of that company. Let’s say you tell investors you’re aiming for $50 million over the next three years; if you don’t update those plans to accommodate what’s actually happening and come up short, it will seem to the investors that you failed. If you’re agile and continuously, rationally and transparently revising the target, then investors are more likely to see your business as grounded and attentive. They will see that you met the new, more reasonable goal, not that you missed the original one.
How to put agility at the front of your organization
Part of the issue with traditional waterfall methodology is that it tries to impose a rigid structure over processes that are inherently fluid. Rather than working collaboratively to figure out the next practical move, management often comes in and makes a demand of the individual team, based on a preconceived, immovable goal. To bring agile to the fore, most companies have to covert to more product-oriented organizational models, improve IT-business interactions, redefine roles and rethink their budgets and planning models.
Management and workers who are willing to go through these changes first need a big-picture view of what they’re doing. They have to see how all of the tasks or projects connect and fit into the overall flow of the organization. Instead of having separate discussions (e.g. organization vs. your IT team), integrate continuous communication across the entire business. Negotiate in real-time so there’s no confusion about what’s achievable or going to happen.
Through this process, recognize that every project looks different and requires different things in terms of resources and execution. There is no one-size-fits-all. That’s a hard pill for many leaders to swallow, because predictability and repeatability are so stabilizing. But seeing the real-time uniqueness of the work is what will allow you to bring out the best in your workers, get them confident and comfortable in change, and find truly innovative, effective solutions.
Adopting agile on a wide scale is up to us
If the pandemic taught professionals anything, it’s that responsiveness is the life’s breath of business. Agile, while not perfect for every group, can provide that responsiveness and has led to a slew of positive leadership practices since its early Deming days. Determining whether it makes sense for your organization might be exactly what you need to jumpstart your success. By teaching agile methodologies in our business schools, we can also more broadly prepare the next generation of leaders to do well no matter how quickly the markets might spin within the evolving world.