If you believe the sales pitch on the agile methodology box, it’s a wonderfully adaptable and incremental development process that allows IT solutions providers to deliver better quality products and systems to their clients, and to do so faster than ever before.
But while many solutions providers have been sold the agile dream, a worrying percentage have ended up finding themselves in an agile nightmare. The nuances of the agile methodology can make it a complex system to properly implement and utilise, particularly in organisations that may not have any experience with the approach.
To get a better understanding of the whats, the whys, and the hows of agile, we spoke to three experts who live and breathe the agile methodology every minute of every day. Adam Woods, Head of Backend Development at hipages, Graeme Cooper, Agile Practice Lead at ING and Lucy Cornish, Iterations & QA Manager at AgriDigital spoke to us about what agile means to them, and how they’ve managed to effectively implement it within their organisations.
What is agile?
Before delving too deep, let’s first take a crash course in agile developing.
The concept of agile developing comes from the Agile Manifesto, a document created by 14 software industry leaders, which laid out their thoughts on the dos and don’ts of software development. ‘Agile development’ is an umbrella term that refers to a range of agile methods and processes that align with this Manifesto.
These methods and processes share a focus on iterative development, where requirements and their solutions are allowed to constantly evolve, steered by collaboration between development teams. The emphasis is on constant assessment and adaptation, and empowering the developers at the coalface. This allows for pragmatic solutions to be delivered incredibly efficiently.
What does it really mean to be agile?
Admittedly it’s difficult to describe the definition above as anything but vague; an unavoidable consequence of such an overarching term. So, what does being agile mean to those who live the methodology day-to-day?
“Truly working in agile is all about adaptability,” says Woods. “It means establishing processes that allow the team to effectively respond to changes. These processes must also provide visibility into priorities and progress, which helps the business to make informed decisions.”
According to Cornish of AgriDigital, despite the breadth of the concept, some constants can still be found across the board.
“The implementation [of agile methodologies] can vary from place to place, but the key principles of faster feedback, value-focused delivery, communication, collaboration, flexibility and continuous improvement remain at its core.”
When asked to define working in agile, Cooper puts his focus on the frontline. “An agile organisation strives to empower the people who are closest to the work that adds value to its customers. Plan regularly, act immediately, observe whether it helped or not, and assess what isn’t working for the next planning cycle.”
Dangerous agile misunderstandings
As many inexperienced organisations have found out first-hand, agile development is far from the silver bullet that many solutions providers believe it to be. Such a complex and changeable concept comes with a wealth of perils and pitfalls that many an organisation has succumbed to.
So, what are the traps to look out for?
Inflexible methodologies: “A methodology can only get an organisation so far,” says Cooper. “Eventually, the organisation has to realise that their system of work affects the methodology as much as the methodology affects the system.” Religiously following a methodology will see you doing agile. Adapting a methodology to your organisation will see you being agile.
Working in a team: Implementing agile development means transforming many otherwise individual development tasks to team-oriented pursuits. This can be a tricky change for developers who are used to working autonomously.
Seeing agile as a ‘task’: “Agile is a mindset rather than a set of processes and tools. I think people can lose sight of that and overcomplicate the implementation, which means the core message of agile is lost,” Cornish explains. Ironically, getting caught up in the minutiae of an agile methodology can see you departing from fundamental agile principles.
A lack of proper planning: One of the agile methodology’s core principles is ‘responding to change over following a plan.’ While this offers an organisation ultimate flexibility to cater to the changing needs of their customers, overt adherence to such a principle can see it ultimately construed as ‘development over planning’. The ability to refine and tweak a project on the run is invaluable, but there still needs to be a basic plan in place to direct any project long-term.
A day in the agile life
To paint a clearer picture of what agile development looks like in real terms, we asked our experts to describe how such an approach plays out within their offices during a standard work day.
Woods sees regular updates as vital. “A normal agile working day starts with a morning stand-up where each person mentions three things: any important information about what they did yesterday, what they intend to accomplish today, and any blockers to them accomplishing their work. We encourage all relevant stakeholders in the team to attend to help expedite the resolution of blockers. After stand-up, my goal is to eliminate distractions for my team so they can focus on delivering on our goals.”
Cornish’s office works in a similar way, though she adds that the team “works together, so any issues or questions are communicated and answered quickly, and work can continue.”
As ING’s Agile Practice Lead, Cooper has to spread himself across many different teams on any given day. Between stand-ups, one-on-one coaching sessions and a swathe of meetings, he aims to help “agile coaches, scrum masters, or delivery leaders discover their own answers to difficult problems.”
A reward for commitment
Despite the challenges, our experts all agree that agile developing presents their teams — and subsequently their entire organisations — with the greatest opportunity for success.
The perks of not just taking an agile approach, but committing to an agile mindset, are many and varied. But the benefits of agile are perhaps best summarised by Cooper, who outlines ING’s reasoning neatly below.
“[With agile] we talk about fixing our failures and preventing their reoccurrence, instead of talking about who caused the failure. We don’t spend our days sitting in endless meetings and not making a difference. We find out if we’re off track long before we have to have a difficult conversation.
“We don’t waste time pretending we know what our customers want; we ask them.”