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Agile: It’s Not Just for Software Developers Anymore

Agile is a huge buzzword in software development. Other terms include “Scrum,” sprint, iteration, stand-up meetings, project charter, etc.

While non-software development enterprises may not be using these terms, they have incorporated many of the basics of agile in their own project management. In fact, many of the techniques of agile development have been used in non-IT areas for years – standup meetings, visual management, prioritization, and division of projects into smaller iterations.

Toward a Definition

In short, agile project management is a method that adopts a team approach. A project is completed in iterations, each of which emphasizes the involvement of all stakeholders, consistent communication among them, experimentation and testing. A project is thus managed and developed in spurts of activity, focusing on one piece at a time.

There are challenges to agile management to be sure:

  • Managing the scope of a project: changes come quickly and need to be implemented just as quickly
  • Scheduling can be an issue: because agile projects require a group all working simultaneously on their own “pieces,” and fast-tracking that work.
  • Change requests and approval: these happen quickly and can impact all team members
  • Communication: team members must interact regularly and often during non-scheduled times because rapid changes occur throughout project completion, and everyone must adapt.

Even with these challenges, there is evidence that enterprises other than software development firms can utilize the concepts of agile.

Early Usage

In 1986, The Harvard Business Review (Jan. 1986), two Japanese researchers published an article titled, “The New Product Development Game.” In it, they spoke about a new process for product development (not in the IT field), and first used the terminology “scrum” and “sprint” – a methodology that involved production in small, rapid iterative cycles.

Software Development Becomes Natural for Agile

As the years progressed, and Scrum became more of a subject for discussion, software development firms began to see the value it brought to team development projects. They latched onto it, added other facets and came up with what became known as “agile development.” The method has proven to be highly effective, allowing teams to identify short iterations for development, to develop those quickly, to experiment and test, and then to quickly move onto the next iteration.

The beauty of agile is that each iteration can be perfected before moving on. Thus, the final product is as it should be without the need to go back and try to find bugs and issues that are preventing the product from operating as it should. This means a much faster time-to-market and, of course, happier clients.

Value of Agile in Other Industries

Project teams and management across all industries and project managers are now beginning to see the value of agile in their own niches. Some of the hottest areas for use of agile are in new products/service development, marketing campaigns, reorganizations and mergers, design engineering, and even construction. The common factor in all of these initiatives is that they involve a change, often at high levels, varying levels of resistance to change, and thus the need to adapt quickly. And agile is all about change, dealing with the unpredictable, and seed.

Some Agile Case Studies Outside of IT

While there is not a large number of case studies of non-IT enterprises using agile, there are a few. Here are two of them.

1. Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet is a publisher of travel guide books – the largest in the world. It is now owned by NC2 Media.

In 2012, Lonely Planet’s legal team made the decision to adopt an agile approach – using whiteboards and task cards, holding stand-up meetings, implementing weekly iterations.

2. Shamrock Foods

This company is a food distributor with headquarters in Arizona. Senior management decided to adopt some aspects of agile. Specifically, they began to hold quarterly meetings. During these meetings, this team would review all tasks that had been completed the previous quarter, review and adjust their strategies, and prioritize the next iterative activities. Each manager would return to his location, armed with cards of tasks. According to this case study writeup in the Sloan Management Review, the company has flourished since this adoption.

Uses/Projected Uses of Agile

Agile in non-software industries

There are a few industries in which some facets of agile are already in use, and, based upon its effectiveness, hold promise for expansion.

1. The Automobile Industry

Automobile design is a complex process, conducted by engineers who work both on internal engines and external design features (interiors, body styles, etc.). Small teams are already in place for all of the facets of automobile designs. Agile allows these teams to meet, prioritize iterations, develop small elements, test them, change things quickly, and then move on. This approach means that the potential for the final product meeting all of the manufacturer’s expectations is much greater. The time-to-market is thus reduced.

2. The Construction Industry

Consider the process of building a custom home. The builder draws up the initial plans with the client. He then gathers his teams together, each team responsible for one aspect of the construction process. Using agile, these smaller teams can meet, prioritize, identify the sequence of iterations, hold quick daily or weekly meetings to report on task progress, identify issues, and come up with quick solutions to those issues before moving on. The stakeholder, the client, can be consulted as necessary so that decisions are “approved.” In the end, the final product is free of many of the issue that builder and their clients face, once the product is completed and delivered.

Conclusion

Agile is, above all, a conceptual process. And it is amazingly effective in the software development industry. It has been slow to transfer to other industries, primarily because Agile organizations continue to focus on the IT industry. One of the things that needs to happen is an expansion of these organizations to be more inclusive and more inviting to executives and managers of non-software industries.

For example, Agile on the Beach is a two-day conference held every summer in England. To date, this organization still focuses primarily on attendees from IT niches. Expanding both presenters and workshop offerings to include a wider variety of industries, would serve to promote agile to other project managers and enterprise executives.

Agile holds significant value for project management in any industry or niche. It is a matter of demonstrating that value to a wider audience.

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