What Does an “Agile” Business Really Mean?

Trond Frantzen, Managing Partner & Chief Business Analyst | The PowerStart Group

Business GrowthAn “agile” business environment is really a frame of mind, rather than a specific process applied to a project. It’s a paradigm or mental model of how we can approach our work in our business. It’s certainly not a methodology. An agile business environment simply means … allowing teams to adapt working practices according to the needs of their individual business areas. The emphasis must be on delivering business value early, and then to continually improve it. “Delivering business value early” does not just refer to getting a project done; it means to deliver value in how we interact with our business partners, clients and suppliers … and how we are seen to do so.

It also means not doing anything you don’t have to do, and trying to think outside the box to minimize doing things in a certain way just because they have always been done that way.

But, to accomplish this, we also have to recognize (a) that we are doing something that we may not need to do; and (b) what we’re doing is only being done that way because it has always been done that way. In other words, we have to be aware of the conflict, which is easier said than done. It’s an interesting conundrum. If we are not experts in the conventional approach, then how would we know if a different approach is better? What’s our benchmark? What do we compare to?

Agile’ doesn’t mean doing something differently just because we can do it differently. ‘Agile’ doesn’t mean doing less of the work, just to beat the clock. ‘Agile’ means knowing which best practices really are best rather than not. There are lots and lots of so-called best practices heralded by maintainers of the status quo. Bear in mind that “best practices” have usually been around a long time for them to be declared as best practices by the community.

Also, ‘agile’ does not mean chaos in the business. It means finding the straightest road to the planned destination, and then taking that road even when others think you should take the conventional and safe route … usually somewhat circuitous and full of old-school bureaucracy, which will always take a lot of time.

Agile’ also means learning new approaches and methods, not just blindly sticking with methods that haven’t changed in years, without any indication things are getting better. It also means to not avoid doing what’s required (some of the administrative things) just because it seems faster that way. Times change; methods change. And here are my three core values of an “agile” business:

♦ Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

♦ Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

♦ Being empowered to respond to change over following a (possibly outdated) plan.

Granted, some individuals and organizations take this too literally (which is always a danger when you say “being empowered to respond to change over following a plan”), which can lead to a challenged and chaotic environments because of lack of professional discipline. There’s more to a business than fast work; just like there’s more to a business than just revenue.

Above all, if we want to foster an agile business environment, we must involve our team, our clients, and our suppliers; and involve them a lot.

Always recognize, as the first principle, that we serve our clients – whether clients are part of an internal group or are customers outside our organization.

Recognize also that our business environment is rapidly changing around us, whether we like it or not. How we work with our business partners (our staff, clients and suppliers) will change as our business partners come to understand their own needs even better. The issue for us is how to deal with those changes, since history tells us that change is good. This is what improvement is all about; so when a client (or a team member, or a supplier) wants to change how they do interact with us or anyone else, it’s actually a move in the right direction.

In my opinion, “agile” means being fast and responsive, but without chaos and risk.

Thomas Kuhn, in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” used the term “paradigm shift”. He argued that rival paradigms are incommensurable; that is, it is not possible to understand one paradigm through the conceptual framework and terminology of another rival paradigm. I certainly agree with that. Therefore, any ‘agile’ approach to work cannot be measured using the metrics applied to conventional approaches.

At the end of the day, our ability to respond to the needs of our business and workplace is far more important than mindlessly following the rigors of a book of rules and regulations, printed neatly and all fixed in a point in time. I’m not at all suggesting that old-school methodologies and approaches to work are not important; they are. But flexibility, responsiveness, and direct interaction are the key to success.

The quality of the work we do is always directly related to our education, professional development, experience, and the quality of the methods we use and the thinking applied. And our willingness to go where others have not dared.

Trond Frantzen is a business analyst, strategist, consultant, and an author. He has worked with scores of clients across Canada and the U.S., including government and private organizations, to deliver mission-critical projects. He specializes in "challenged" projects.

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