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Agile Beyond IT:  Reinterpreting the Manifesto

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Agile was initially conceived to deliver software projects more quickly.  We have now learned to apply these principles and practices well beyond technology.  Leading enterprises are now focusing on business agility—building the organizational capability to respond more quickly to the ever-changing competitive landscape.

Seventeen technology thought-leaders from around the world gathered at the Snowbird ski resort in 2001.   They represented different frameworks and approaches—Scrum, eXtreme Programming, Objected Oriented Programming, and Dynamic Systems Development Method, to name a few. 

The goal of the gathering was initially unclear.  They started by sharing their experiences.  The outcome was the Manifesto of Agile Software Development—a set of value statements and principles enshrining the commonalities of their work. 

The Manifesto is technology-centric and references software, architecture, and design.  Consequently, both non-technologists and some technologists question the applicability of Agile to the broader enterprise.  However, a slight reinterpretation of the statements demonstrates its broad relevance.  I have even used Agile when working with non-profit organizations. 

The Preamble

The preamble to the Manifesto is important.  It acknowledges that Agile is pragmatic and ever-evolving.  “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it.”  Rather than constraining ourselves to software, Let’s remove software and say, “We are continually finding better ways of working, and through this, we have come to value.”

 Value #1:  Individuals & Interactions

The first principle does not change.  We still value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Processes and tools are necessary. Without them, there would be chaos.  They create a foundation for consistency and a basis for continuous improvement. 

Alone, they do not help us solve the complex business problems we face today.  People working together and collaborating create the magic.  Unlocking the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers opens opportunities to find innovative and exceptional solutions.  

Management theory is rooted in the era of mass production.  The old ways of working were rooted in routine, standardization, and a rules-based approach.  The utility of this approach in a manufacturing environment is questionable.  It certainly does not scale to the challenges of today. 

The shortcomings of a rules-based approach are evident.  Remember a frustrating customer service experience.  The service representative followed a well-defined process and had ample tools.  The knowledge base and script should have solved your problem.  But it is never that simple. 

Now consider a great service experience. Probably, the difference was the quality of the interaction.  The person may have been empathetic and actively listened.  They may have many considered several options to resolve your problem.  And you felt like you were talking to a real person, not a robot.

Value #2: Customer Solutions

The second principle is “Working software over comprehensive documentation.”  To make this principle universal, we should change working software to “customer solutions over excessive documentation and processing.”  We want to address our customers’ needs quickly and efficiently.   

Regardless of our project or work, we want to focus on delivering a solution—a building, a conference, or a marketing plan.  The documentation or the processes required to fulfill that need is simply a means to an end. 

The required level of control and oversight should be context-dependent.  If we are developing a new drug or medical device, the level of control will be greater than a new computer game.

This value statement also highlights our customers.  Delighting our customers—internal or external—should be a primary focus.  What do our customers want?  When do they need it?  How can we get it to them as fast as possible? 

Without our customers, what is the purpose of our work?

Value #3: Customer Collaboration

The original value is “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.”  Most people disregard this statement because they don’t deal with contracts.

Let’s not take this principle too literally. Don’t think it’s just about contracts. Consider all the agreements that inhibit our ability to work closely with our customers or broader delivery teams.  Rather than limiting the statement to “contract negotiations,” let us extend the principle to all “restrictive agreements.”

Internal service or operating agreements or standards and regulations may constrain the ability to work collaboratively with our customers and meet their needs.  Organizational silos, segregation of duties requirements, and RACI matrixes can impede collaboration. 

Let’s return to our customer service example. How many times have we heard? I’m sorry, but that’s the policy.

To deliver great products and services, we must have a culture and environment that promotes service over standards and rules.  Companies like Ritz Carlton Hotels, L.L. Bean, and Zappos recognize that customer relationship is the source of their competitive advantage. 

Ritz Carlton employees are committed to meeting guests’ “unexpressed needs.” Any employee can spend up to $2,000 per incident to resolve a guest’s problem and rescue their experience. 

When we are free to collaborate with our customers and provide them with what they want or need, they are appreciative and happy.

Value #4: Responding to Change

The final value is “Responding to change over following a plan.”  There is an old Yiddish expression.  “People plan.  God laughs.” 

Planning does provide value.  It creates the opportunity to consider alternatives, options, and risks.  However, plans represent the best intentions and predictions of the future.  No one can predict future events—not even the weather person.

The pandemic was hopefully a once-in-a-hundred-year event.  All businesses needed to adapt to this cataclysmic event.  Most offices went virtual.  Video conferencing and online collaboration tools replaced in-person meetings.  Restaurants and bars shifted to carry-out and online delivery.  States even relaxed their alcohol regulations to permit takeout cocktails.

Adapting, adjusting, and responding to changing circumstances is a sign of resilience.  Resilient people live longer, happier lives.  Resilient project managers and organizations are more successful.

To learn more about Agile Beyond IT…I partnered with Velociteach to create a 4-hour online course describing how to apply Agile practices to all organizational challenges.  Use the promo code: Alan20.

© 2022, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

See related articles:

Agile Beyond IT: Lean Thinking

Be Agile: Follow the Manifesto

Business Agility: Getting Started

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