When business executives talk Agile today, it's not a just a buzzword for speed, flexibility and success. It signals a change in direction: taking management practices developed for software projects and applying them to everyday business activities.
"We see CEOs doing daily stand-up meetings with their teams," said Agile coach Robert Galen, founder of RGalen Consulting in Cary, N.C. "We hear them talk about product backlog grooming," referring to a widely adopted Agile software development methodology known as Scrum. "Agile is not a technology initiative," Galen said. "Agile is a cultural play, a way of working to transform an organization."
Top execs are drawn to Agile because it emphasizes efficiency, focuses on getting real work done and discourages finger-pointing when things go awry.
The daily stand-up meeting
Business teams experimenting with Agile techniques begin by incorporating practices like daily stand-up meetings into day-to-day activities, Galen said. Daily stand-ups prevent team members from talking too much and wasting time on nonessential information. Stand-up meetings run five to 15 minutes, just long enough for each team member to answer three questions: What did you do yesterday? What will you do today? Are there any impediments in your way?
Putting all the cards on the table
"In the old way of working [before Agile], executives simply said which projects took precedence and software developers were moved from one to another without knowing why," said Johanna Rothman, founder of Rothman Consulting in Arlington, Mass. Setting project priorities in Agile is a collaborative process, requiring senior executives to explain their thinking and having it challenged. "Some of them don't like it," Rothman added. Other execs see the value of putting all their cards on the table and applying that approach to decision making beyond software development.
Running a sprint in sales
At email marketing company iContact, in Morrisville, N.C., Galen helped the sales team use Agile techniques to meet its revenue goals. Instead of quarterly and annual targets, Galen recommended working in two-week sales intervals, where teams divide work into short iterations, known as sprints. The goal is steady delivery instead of a big deadline months away.
Galen notes they started collaborating as a team, using daily stand-up meetings to brainstorm new sales opportunities. "After a few sprints, they saw a huge improvement. They committed to getting 100 new customers, but they got 200."