How to take an agile approach to process improvement.

Being agile means you’re more flexible, you move faster and you adapt to change more easily. In the fast-moving world of software development, companies have taken that to heart. 

Many take an agile approach to development to be nimble enough to keep innovating – which is what software should be all about.

Creating a structure that allows you to innovate quickly is good for business – regardless of the industry, or functional area you work in. So how does agile work and (more importantly) how can you do it too?

How a business can stay agile.

There’s a lot that goes into an agile approach, but the part that can be useful for any business is in the way you tackle problems and projects. Rather than defining the whole project and setting a 'way forward', it’s taking things much more iteratively. Practically that means meeting as a team regularly and often, to share problems and successes and make improvements.

Let’s say your team meets every two weeks. Not for long, just long enough to look at their processes and output, and decide on any changes. Everyone has a say, and you get a chance to review and learn as you go. That’s called being retrospective – what worked before? How is it different now? What do they do about it next? It’s really just another name – and system – for continuous improvement.

The point is to give yourself the chance to try new things and new approaches, while reviewing things constantly. That’s completely foreign to the way most businesses run, where a review process is nearly always tacked onto the very end of a project – when the value that can be taken from the lessons could be limited. Being retrospective and only trying things for a short period means you can try and fail faster. That might feel inefficient at first, but long term, you’ll see a trend of continuous improvement – and innovation.

How agility can work for you.

Your more frequent review meetings will show some often-surprising benefits:

  • You’ll have more opportunity to experiment. Because your trial to fix a problem or test a new idea may only last two weeks, the impacts to business are lower. If the trial doesn’t work, you can scrap it and try something else.
  • You can identify problems before they cost a lot of money, or cause a lot of damage. With an open forum where people can make connections and agree on changes, improvements are a given and your work culture gains strength.
  • Your estimates are more accurate. When you examine processes and outputs more regularly, trends are quickly identified and consistency is easier to achieve.
  • Individual team members will develop confidence, gaining a better view of the company and the value they contribute to it.

How to flex your agile muscle.

You might be thinking 'I don’t have time for this'. It could seem a little self-indulgent, a little too much like navel-gazing. In fact 'working agile' takes discipline. Just like you need to exercise regularly to keep your body agile, doing the same for your business requires commitment. But it pays off in the end.

You might be working in a traditional, rigid company, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a start on your own team’s agility.

  1. Begin with the discipline of regular and frequent meetings. Discuss your problems and pain points.
  2. Think about the best set-up for inclusiveness – a round table, Post-it notes, white board.
  3. Leave hierarchy at the door – for the duration of the meeting everyone is equal, with the opportunity to contribute without interruption.
  4. Discuss process, not people.
  5. Keep each meeting short. Raise multiple issues to begin with, then agree on a few clear actions to be accomplished right away.
  6. Share out the actions – don’t leave everything to one person.
  7. Meet again in two weeks. Discuss the actions of the previous meeting – which ones worked? Which ones need a re-think and a different action?
  8. Repeat steps 3 – 7 and build a rich, agile team culture.
  9. Don’t ask permission, just do it. When you’ve run long enough to show some genuine business benefits, take your results to senior management

The retrospective effect.

Right from the start, you can expect a range of outcomes from your meetings. Some may be big issues, but many are about your team culture – how you work together and how you problem-solve. Often, you don’t see any of these things unless you take the time to stop and look – regularly and often.

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