On the need to be agile

On the morning of January 19, 2020, a plane from China landed at Munich airport. Its arrival would change just about everything. Because on that day the virus landed in Germany. The outbreak of Covid-19 is an event that has completely turned our lives upside down and has demanded a lot from us in the last few months – be it on a private level or at work. We have had to learn to love our little place called home, seeing as the list of things we suddenly had to give a “home” to was seemingly long. #stayhome.

But if there is one thing we have learnt from the last few months, it is that when it comes down to it, we are able to adapt quickly and flexibly, much like a chameleon.

And flexibility is a sub-discipline of agility. Though the devil is in the details here. If you are agile, you are also flexible. But this does not mean you are agile just because you are flexible!

If you look for the term 'agility' in the dictionary, you can find the following definition from BusinessDictionary.com:

"The capability of a company to rapidly change or adapt in response to changes in the market. A high degree of organizational agility can help a company to react successfully to the emergence of new competitors, the development of new industry-changing technologies, or sudden shifts in overall market conditions."

Agility means taking control and being the one to take the steering wheel, rather than waiting for a given situation or having to adapt yourself to one.

History of agile working

The idea of agile working has existed since the 1950s and has its origins in the systems theory of organisations. The American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, is a name that crops up in this context. It was he who named four functions that every system should fulfil in order to maintain their existence.

For Parsons, agility meant the ability of a system to react to changing external conditions (adaptation), to define and pursue goals (goal attainment), to establish and secure cohesion and integration and to maintain fundamental structures and value systems (latency).

Looking back at the history of agility reveals three stages in its development:

1. Agile manufacturing

Starting from the ’90s at the turn of the last century, the concept of agility reappeared in a modified form, going by the name of “agile manufacturing”. Focus was centered on rapid product development (simultaneous engineering), multifunctional teams and the continuous optimisation of production sequences during the process – take Industry 4.0 for comparison.

2. Agile software development

Since the beginning of the 21st century, agility has become the moniker for agile software development, and increasingly so through methods such as “Scrum”. With the creation of the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”, a guiding action plan was established according to which principles in software development should be lived out in order to make software development a truly agile undertaking and, at the same measure, to reap the benefits this way of working can provide.

3. The agile organisation

Current trends in the working world, such as “New Work” and “Work 4.0”, bring with them completely new challenges in which the 50-year-old concept of agility is making a comeback and offering practical benefits. What is new is that the concept of agility is, for many companies, no longer being confined to just one part of the organisation. Issues surrounding the transformation of business units—or even the entire company—towards an agile way of doing business have been put front and centre. It goes without saying that Corona will certainly help to accelerate this trend.

How important is the mindset for agile work?

For companies, agility primarily means that defined processes and projects that have been planned in detail can be upended at any time and adapted to the realities of a new situation. This could entail changes to customer preferences or modified market requirements. Agility can reduce the time to market, increase transparency in the development process and make opportunities and risks visible at an early stage. Established concepts and processes can end up getting pushed aside. Hierarchical organizational structures are broken down and the silo mentality of departments, where employees only really know the ins and outs of their own department, instead makes way for a preference towards work based around revolving task change-ups among teams. As such, agility demands different attitudes, beliefs and ways of doing things. When it comes to working in an agile manner, the following basic attitude applies: “Be open-minded.”

There are quite a few examples of companies taking on an agile ethos due to Corona. Underwear manufacturers have taken to the sewing of face masks. Silicone tubes once produced for the automotive industry are finding use in medical technologies. Constructors of exhibition stands have filled the niche for providing retail shops with Plexiglas barriers in the name of hygiene.

Agility is therefore not only a fundamental factor for maintaining one's own competitiveness, but in some cases it even ensures a company’s survival. But of course a changing market is only one aspect of the whole. The ever faster development of new technologies, the growing interconnectedness of our economy and, in particular, the increase in digitisation in all areas of our lives also necessitate a general rethink.

How a company becomes more agile

Many companies are already working in an agile way with small teams and projects and have already reaped the first positive rewards of this approach. Nevertheless, it remains a challenging undertaking to extend agility across an entire company, because the strongest obstacle or motivator on the way toward agile transformation is the mindset.

Employees’ self-perception and mindset can have a positive or negative influence on necessary transformation processes. Agility therefore requires the right corporate culture to promote the most dynamic, agile mindset possible among all those involved and to create an environment in which employees are convinced that they can develop their skills. An environment in which employees can (and should) learn in order to understand things better, and in which mistakes are seen as an opportunity to try something new, where employees are able to develop themselves further.

In order to increase agility in a company, several areas must therefore inevitably be put under the spotlight: the organisational structure, product development, tools and working methods and above all the corporate culture and values towards a culture of support in which transparency, teamwork, open communication and an error culture come to the fore and are demanded.

Methods and tools of agile work

The list of methods and tools for agile working is long. Depending on the business or project environment, some are better suited than others. We have compiled the most common methods and tools for you as they are used out in the field, detached from the projects, products and so forth that they would generally relate to:

KANBAN: a tool for visualising processes on a board in column form

PLANNING POKER: Evaluation system with poker cards. It serves to find a consensus of requirements within a project team

DAILY STAND-UP MEETING: (Approx.) 15-minute informal meeting in which each team member briefly reports on upcoming tasks and progress

BURN DOWN CHARTS: Graphical representation of work remaining in a fixed time frame is visualised against time

RETROSPECTIVE: (Approx.) 60-90 minute meeting at the end of a timebox to discuss the following three questions regarding the process: What did not work (and needs to be improved)? What worked well (and can be maintained)? What are our plans for improvement for the next run?

TIMEBOXING: Fixed time limits for activities (timeboxes), which are kept under all circumstances

USER STORIES: Formulates the requirements for an application, a product or a service from the perspective of the customer or user in everyday language

TASK BOARDS: Tool used to visualise and organise the tasks and progress in a team (see KANBAN)

DEFINITION OF DONE: Listing of all criteria that a final result must meet in order to be classified as complete

DEFINITION OF READY: Listing of all criteria and information that a task must meet in order to be approved for implementation

FUCKUP HOUR/INNOVATION HOUR: Meetings that occur every two weeks in which employees present the biggest mistakes of the past weeks so that other team members can learn from the individual mistake

SCRUM: Procedure for the implementation of (software) products. SCRUM is mainly used when it can be assumed that only a small part of the requirements is already known

DESIGN THINKING: Method for the development of new innovative ideas, in which different phases help to first understand the problem, then generate possible solutions, transfer them into prototypes and finally test them with users

LEAN UX: Simple tools and methods used to develop applications directly with the customer or user

LEAN STARTUP METHOD: Describes how assumptions about business ideas and business models can be tested directly on the market at an early stage

MVPs (minimum viable products): ‘Test floats’ with which assumptions critical to success about customers and their needs can be tested directly on the market

VALUE PROPOSITION DESIGN: Design tool to collect information about customer jobs, pains and gains

CUSTOMER DEVELOPMENT METHOD: Describes the entire path from a business idea to a business model, the conquering of the market up to a full-fledged company

HOLACRACY: Is characterised by a special approach to task distribution, hierarchies, decision-making and self-directed teams

Scrum explained in practice

It all starts with a product vision, i.e. a rough idea of what the product or project result should look like. Most of the time a specific reason brings about the product vision, like a particular customer request or a new accounting standard, for example. Once the requirements and tasks have been clarified, tasks are distributed among the project team members. In so-called sprints, the team considers which focus the next work cycle should have and which stories/tasks should be tackled as part of the next sprint.

Stand-up meetings are held daily, in which all participants report briefly and concisely on the progress they are making for their respective tasks. If a team member encounters a problem, they have the opportunity to discuss different points of view or approaches with the other team members. In this way, all team members are engaged in finding a solution, whereby project knowledge of the individual team members is evenly distributed so as to compensate for any absent manpower.

When a sprint has come to an end, the results are looked over. The project team members then also reflect on what went well and what went badly in the project (the so-called retrospective).

Participants have an increased commitment to a project, since all team members are actively involved in the process each day. The aim of the game is to continuously present results and to develop them further. Changes and problems that teams were not aware of at a plan’s outset can be reacted to in this way as a development project heads toward the finish line.

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