Beyond app dev: Applying agile techniques to business

Software development practices such as collaboration and openness to change are now being applied to all parts of a business

Agile, a term that has become associated with building software in short iterations, is making headway as a philosophy for running a business in general, with executives latching on to agile practices such as its heavy emphasis on flexibility and collaboration.

These days, businesses must be agile and responsive in dealing with economic and business conditions, says Jim Highsmith, a co-author of the "Manifesto for Agile Software Development," a 2001 position paper that sparked broad usage of agile methods in software development shops: "They've just got to move faster, change quicker." People are approaching agile from a business and management perspective, not necessarily just from an IT perspective, says Highsmith, an executive consultant at IT consultancy ThoughtWorks.

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Dave Sharrock, vice president of professional services at consulting firm Agile42, agrees that agile practices are moving from programming into business management: "We're seeing more and more [agile-oriented consulting business] being brought in by business managers or leadership teams with the need to bring in the whole product portfolio -- the product development process -- into an agile way of working."

Leadership teams want to know how to interact with an agile development organization, he adds. As an example, Sharrock says his former employer, social media company, rebuilt its engineering organization using Scrum and agile processes. Its management used an iterative, adaptive approach to manage the whole organization.

Companies implementing agile outside of software development
Software developer Tasktop Technologies uses some agile concepts in running the company, says its president, Neelan Choksi. "To be honest, I wasn't a believer when I joined the company." Agile, he says, just sounded "like a bunch of self-help."

He's now a believer: "After a year, I can't put my finger on it but it works." Tasktop does its marketing in sprints, a concept critical in agile software development. "It causes us to focus on certain activities" within a set period of time, Choksi says.

At Land O'Frost, which sells lunch meats, the company is wedded to agile practices when it comes to running its operations so that it can anticipate and respond in a fast-changing world. "If you're not reacting, anticipating that kind of change, you're not going to be successful," says Steve Sakats, senior vice president for human resources.

Land O'Frost's key agility indicators include being focused, fast, and flexible in areas such as sales and customer development, finance, human resources, and operations -- similar to the Agile Manifesto's emphasis on customer collaboration and being able to respond to change. Agility Consulting and Training, the agile consulting firm that Land O'Frost used, has developed an agile model that involves anticipating change, generating confidence, initiating action, liberating thinking, and evaluating results.

Ironically, Land O'Frost still uses traditional waterfall methods in the little bit of software development that it does, Sakats says. That's because the company purchases a lot of its systems rather than developing in-house.

Agile coming full circle to its roots in business management
Athough "agile" has become a popular buzzword in software development, Agile42 consultant Sharrock says agile processes have always been used in business, but they hadn't been clearly defined before: "Once you have an agile software development organization, you automatically start putting pressure on other parts of the organization to work in a similar way [to agile]."

Lean -- a quality-oriented production management method that is a forerunner of agile -- and agile tenets were promoted back in the 1970s by W. Edwards Deming, says Nathan Slippen, chief U.S. technologist for agile consulting firm Valtech. "When you look at the tenets [of agile], they can be applied at different levels within an enterprise," such as reducing and eliminating waste and figuring out ways to make processes more transparent, he says -- both foundational tenets of Lean.

The use of agile practices beyond just software development is a noble goal. If done successfully, businesses can apply the same concepts of collaboration and flexibility for business benefits that agile provides in software development. But agile practice requires a new way of thinking, and participants in the process must be able to accommodate changes to how things have always been done. As Sharrock says, "It's a people change."

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