Innovation Thinking: Using the Agile mindset to improve productivity

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This is the first article in a series called “Innovation Thinking,” where we explore tools and processes that can help to foster innovation, both big and small, within your company. 

Agile methodology first became codified in the early 2000s among software developers seeking to bring their products to market faster and more efficiently. Since then, Agile methods have started to spread beyond its tech roots, with many non-tech teams applying its principles and values as part of a general project management approach.

The Agile manifesto is relatively simple:  

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Instead of micromanaging, get teams to self-organize and self-divide the work. 
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation. When applied to non-tech businesses, it simply means that getting stuff done is better than talking or writing about doing stuff.
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Getting regular feedback from your customers during a project is far better than simply checking things off a deliverables list. 
  4. Responding to change over following a plan. Flexibility is key in agility.

The Agile method has since become the foundation of many software development frameworks, such as Kanban and Scrum. But non-tech teams have also found that adopting an “Agile mindset” in their workflows has helped them to become more efficient and innovative. Below we discuss the key elements that comprise the Agile method, as well as which environments allow Agile thinking to thrive.

Understanding Agile method as a non-tech business 

At its core, agile is more of a philosophy of work as opposed to a set of specific management processes. But no matter which framework you use, much of the core principles remain the same:

Iteration is the key to the Agile approach. Instead of tackling a huge project all at once, it’s broken down into individual tasks, which are then grouped into short 2-3 week “sprints.” Members within an Agile group take on a set of assigned tasks, then work through them during the sprint. At the end of the sprint, the team regroups to evaluate what has been done, work through any roadblocks, get any necessary feedback or approvals from clients/customers, and set the tasks out for the next sprint. 

Tasks remain transparent during sprints. Most Agile methods integrate some sort of shared task board that allows the team to track work progress. Tasks within a project are typically divided into one of three main sections: To Do, In Progress, and Done. Team members move tasks from “To Do” to “In Progress” as they are assigned, and into “Done” as they are completed. The transparency of work allows for other team members to comment and review upon work as it is being completed, catching any issues or problems early on instead of when it’s too late at the end of the project. 

Individuals have high levels of autonomy during a project. One of the reasons why Agile is particularly valued by teams working on creative projects is because of the amount of autonomy and responsibility endowed on the team members. Instead of being told how to do something, team members simply know what they have to accomplish—this gives them the freedom to experiment and find unique solutions for their assigned tasks. 

Communication is highly focused but brief. One of the primary goals of the Agile manifesto was to eliminate wasteful meetings spent planning about doing things, instead of actually doing them. During sprints, teams are encouraged to have extremely short “standup” meetings of 5-10 minutes (with the rationale that if everyone is standing, they will be motivated to keep the meeting short). These are simply check-in meetings to keep everyone in sync during the sprint. 

Continuous improvement happens through retrospectives. At the end of every sprint, team members gather for a retrospective, a discussion that allows the team to reinforce positive outcomes, address any negative issues, and consider ideas for changes or improvement. These natural built-in checkpoints help teams to keep their eye on the bigger picture of the project, something that can be lost if they are only focused on checking off tasks or deliverables. 

When Agile is useful within a business

Agile doesn’t work for all companies or projects. The slightly chaotic nature of this method means that it is more useful in specific situations than in others. Some important notes: 

Agile works best in creative contexts. An iterative project management process is especially suited for certain creative projects, when the end goal is about satisfying a specific customer/client/stakeholder outcome. You couldn’t implement Agile on your factory floor, for example, but you could have your product development teams working in Agile mode to dream up your company’s next bestseller. Other teams that work well with an Agile mindset include the marketing teams and agencies, media companies, nonprofits, and education, among others. 

Agile works best with skilled, highly motivated team members. Because of the level of autonomy allowed in agile workflows, workers that expect to be directed on what to do, or workers not used to taking a high level of self-responsibility do not generally fare well in an Agile environment. Team players are also more suited to agile than individuals that prefer to work alone.

Agile requires a commitment to time, resources, and training. Using Agile requires buy-in from the entire team and its stakeholders. Everyone needs to understand the philosophy, and be flexible enough to adopt to changes in both project and process. The method also requires skilled group leaders that know how to manage within an Agile mindset. 

Successes and innovation

Outside of the tech world, Agile can introduce efficiencies to processes that speed up delivery times or reduce costs. One of the most famous case studies comes from NPR, which used the method to help reduce programming costs and bring programs to market faster. But it’s not the only success story. Companies have used Agile practices to more efficiently develop company training materials, publish educational curriculum more quickly with less mistakes, and streamline recruitment candidates, among many other examples.

Whether Agile is right for your company will depend a lot on the culture and capabilities of your team, but if implemented successfully, it can truly innovate the way your company does business.