Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Agile outside of software

Later this week I’m doing a presentation at Agile On The Beach entitled: “Agile outside of software development”. (I resisted the temptation to call it “Agile Beyond Software”). The presentation will attempt to answer a question which is often asked at, and around, Agile On The Beach: “Is Agile only for Software Development?”

In truth it is not just at Agile On The Beach (AOTB) that this question is asked, I hear it more and more often elsewhere but the origins of AOTB, and target audience for AOTB, mean that the question is very much on topic.

I’ll post the presentation online after I have delivered it - until then I’ll be tweaking it - but right now I’d like to (kind of by way of rehearsal) run down my main argument, so here goes….

Before the term Agile Software Development was coined there was “Agile Manufacturing”. This was this term that inspired the software folks so perhaps the first answer is: “Yes! Of course Agile works outside of software because that is where it came from.”

But, Agile Software Development has far and away surpassed Agile Manufacturing in writing and mindshare. So much so that others in the wider business community have looked at Agile Software Development as a model for other types of working. In a way, “Agile” has come full circle.

Perhaps it is worth pausing for a moment and asking: “What do we mean by Agile?” or “What do we want from an Agile company?”

This could be a big big debate, ultimately it is for each company, each team, to decide what Agile means to them. Rather than have that discussion let me quote MIT Professor Michael A Cusumano:

“I can’t think of anything more important than building an agile company, because the world changes so quickly and unpredictably…

[Agility] comes in different forms, but basically it’s the ability to quickly adapt to or even anticipate and lead change. Agility in the broadest form affects strategic thinking, operations, technology innovation and the ability to innovate in products, processes and business models.” (MIT Sloan Management Review Summer 2011 interview with Hopkins)

Lets add to that a little bit by defining Agility from three views:

  • Agile Strategy: Adaptability, listen to customer, leading the market, use change competitively
  • Agile Tactically: Experimenting, “Expeditionary Marketing”, live in the now while preparing for the future
  • Agile Operations: Deliver fast, deliver quality, deliver value

We could go on but thats enough for now. Now we have an approximate understanding of what we want we can go back to the original question: “Is Agile only for Software Development?”

There are three parts to this answer: Practices, Roots and Case Studies.

Practices

Lots of the practices associated with Agile actually come from elsewhere. Examples of stand-up meeting proliferate - bars, healthcare, the military, Japanese local Government and so on. Many companies operate regular status or planning meetings, Agile just elevates this practice. WIP limits are well established in manufacturing.

Agile picks up some practices directly - visual boards (“information radiators”) are nothing new.

Some practices it picks up and changes - Retrospectives have long existed as “Lessons Learned” or “After Action Reviews.”

Some practices Agile (might have) invented - Planning poker but this is itself version of wide band delphi.

And some Agile plays back to the business - TDD and BDD are writ large in Lean Startup (which is itself an extreme version of Expeditionary Marketing from 1991, Hamel & Prahalad).

Roots

As already mentioned: Agile Software Development was inspired by Agile Manufacturing.

I’ve described my Agile Pyramid model before (Agile and Lean - the same but different, How do you make Lean Practical?) and my argument that “Agile is Lean thinking applied to software development” and I wrote whole book saying the software development, and Agile software development specifically, is an example of Organizational Learning.

Well, Agile Software Development is not the only application built on these foundations. Obviously the Toyota Production System is. And so too is its close cousin the Ford Production System. Look further afield and you will find Last Planner in construction. I could continue but I think my point is proved.

While not every Agile practice can be taken out of software development and used someplace else the roots of Agile mean that the principles, values and ideas which Agile is built on can be. In your domain Agile as now known might work quite well, but in someone else’s domain there may be more need to think deeper.

One caveat: I believe the more deeply you look at Agile and more Agile is applied outside of the software development the more it looks like Lean. Ultimately the distinction between Lean and Agile breaks down in my book.

Case Studies

Good news: There are case studies of teams using Agile outside of software - and if you know of any more please tell me! Add them in the comments on this blog post.

Bad news: There are not that many case studies. Unless you are a software team you probably can’t find one.

For the Agile on the Beach conference I have deliberately sought out Agile outside of software development in the last few years. This has resulted in two good examples.

Two years ago Kate Sullivan described how the Lonely Planet legal department adopted Agile working. In fact Kate said all of Lonely Planet adopted Agile.

Last year Martin Rowe talked about how he used Scrum to manage the Foundation Computer Science course at Plymouth University.

Elsewhere, six years ago the MIT Sloan Management Review carried a piece by Keith R. McFarland entitled “Should you build strategy like you build software?” in which he described how Shamrock Foods of Arizona used Agile to plan and execute their business strategy.

Myself, I have seen the marketing team at Sullivan Cuff Software Ltd use an Agile like approach.

And last year I helped the GSMA (the people responsible for SIM cards) use Agile on a project writing a document for cellphone manufacturers, mobile network operators and umpteen suppliers and partners to allow mobile phones to be used for loyalty coupons.

So, back to the original question: “Is Agile only for Software Development?”

Answer: No

Question: Will Agile work outside software development?

Answer: Yes

But, the detail may vary.

Finally, and please excuse the pull. As a result of this discussion my company has adapted its successful Foundations of Agile Software Development 2-day course for companies outside software. Please take a look at Agile Kick-Off (for non-software teams) and let me know what you think.