Whether the business term ‘agile’ is one you’re familiar with or not, in this blog post I want to talk about how it started and how this fairly generic term can be applied to every business, in every kind of industry.

The desire to work in an agile way first came about in the IT industry 10-15 years ago, when developers were looking for more productive and efficient ways to create new products, services and programs. Up until then, most worked within a ‘waterfall’ model, a sequential and non-iterative process where progress is measured as flowing downwards, like a waterfall. Designers would start at the scope phase, and move through initiation, analysis, design, construction, testing, implementation and then maintenance.

I believe this construct is simply no longer fit for purpose because in today’s business environment the context continually evolves, user needs change and market forces move extremely swiftly.

Agility is totally different to waterfall. It allows teams to deliver results earlier and more efficiently by phasing work in short, incremental bursts which are repeated many times. In fact, new products and services may be launched with elements still to be added afterwards, because the idea is to focus on around 20% of the requirements which will deliver around 80% of the original value or objectives. Feedback loops start early on in the project or process, and the information from these can be more easily integrated into future elements of work, including user feedback once the product or service is live.

This mindset is the reason why being agile has been adopted and welcomed with open arms by digital teams and businesses. It’s revolutionised all sorts of elements of running digitally-led companies, including time to market, availability and allocation of resource and the ability to listen to, meet and exceed consumer demands.

Yet being agile and executing agility are two different manifestations of the concept. Being agile is cultural: it involves a belt and braces shift towards iterative ways of working throughout the whole organisation. Delivering in an agile way relates to the people defining and running projects, processes and developing new products and services, in a culture that may not necessarily be overly agile. Here, professionals think about practicalities and the best ways to achieve the objective(s), prioritising people over processes, working software over a 100% perfect result, outputs before inputs, collaboration over contracts and responding to change before sticking rigidly to a plan.

In William Schneider’s book, entitled ‘The Reengineering Alternative’, he explains his interpretation of being agile and doing agile, delving deeper into the cultural aspect of agility. He maps company culture on two axes: People vs Company and Reality vs Possibility. He says there may be more than one culture in the company, but the dominant company culture will be routed in one type of culture. Agile naturally plays on the left side of the two charts. If you don’t have the right dominant culture to foster and support agility, then it will comprehensively stifle it. As a result, he says it’s critical to be aware of overriding culture within your organisation, promoting and protecting collaboration and cultivation as the enablers of any form of agility.

Ultimately, most advocates of organisational agility say that being agile and doing agile must be present for a company to really succeed in today’s fast-paced world.