What’s so transformational about agile?

Companies need to survive and thrive in the face of rapid competition. Technologists need to challenge themselves to develop new skills. Agile leads us to do both.

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Last month, we addressed the misconception that agile and scrum are simply software processes. While some think of them as a process, they are much more. Something very different – perhaps even magical – is going on. We are changing the way people work, and in the process changing the role of the technologist. 

197 billion challenges

When the software industry was young, detailed requirements were the norm. Companies did not rely on software to run their businesses. Today, most organizations are powered by software. These companies are driven by quarter-to-quarter results, and the competitive landscape changes and morphs at an astonishing pace. As an example, 197 billion mobile apps were downloaded last year according to Statista, or 9,400 apps per second. Customer expectations for service, response time and convenience are skyrocketing, and yesterday’s new feature is today’s old news. 

Not surprisingly, requirements are not so stable anymore. With the constantly changing competitive landscape that most companies face, businesses also need to change rapidly. Last month’s priority may be superseded by your competitor bringing to market a new feature or capability. We must learn to be more responsive to these needs and to constant changes to the competitive landscape. Otherwise, the organizations that we work for may suffer – and in the process, so will our careers.

Magic, creativity and feedback

In an environment where business change is constant, we need an alternative to long documents, emails, voice mails and other forms of asynchronous communication. We need to dramatically shorten the time required to think, plan and act on new competitive pressures. With things changing so quickly for the business, we also need a process where interactions between technology teams and the business are much more dynamic and occur in real time. In short, we need some magic. 

Part of the magic in technology development is found in rapid feedback. Rapid feedback from customers and our business partners allows us to move faster and be more creative. We see things in a new light and consider possibilities we had not considered. We let go of the old ways we are used to, listen to and partner with our customers, and rediscover the joy of creativity. After all, isn’t that creative process part of the reason why we chose technology as a career?

Interactions are important to creativity, but the removal of artificial constraints and some out-of-the-box thinking is also required. As Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Rapid feedback and creativity are at the heart of the agile values, which emphasize customer collaboration and responding to change. As I noted in Leadership Patterns for Software and Technology Development, “the magic of feedback, in all its varied forms, simply cannot be underestimated in software and technology work. More than anything else, feedback propels our teams forward. Anything we can do to facilitate, accelerate, or enable rapid and effective feedback works strongly in our favor. This is true for all phases and all aspects of any software project or endeavor…it is an important value and pattern that is critical to our success.”

If this type of creative power can be brought to bear on business problems, why doesn’t this work for every company “doing agile?” In short, change is hard. Sometimes a company’s old way of doing things – or our own reluctance to let go of old ways of doing things – results in chaos and wasted motion. Agile does not mean that we avoid writing anything down, or disregard customer goals and business timelines. Done correctly, it results in just the opposite. Scrum relies on transparency, inspection and adaptation – and its events and artifacts will leave little room for this. 

The pivot

The companies we work for must move much more quickly and adapt to constantly changing competitive pressures. We need to respond by moving more quickly, which relies on feedback and creativity. What does this mean for technology careers?

In short, companies are beginning to look for more from technologists, who in many cases focus solely on technology skills. They want people who can combine depth in technology with critical thinking and interpersonal skills. This mix of both depth in technology and breadth in terms of interpersonal skills is referred to frequently as T-shaped skills. 

In my experience, the combination of critical thinking and interpersonal – or leadership skills - is responsible for more than half of the required skills companies look for in candidates. Ignoring the importance of these skills jeopardizes companies and careers. Companies driven by increasing market pressures frequently respond by bringing in consultants, or by replacing existing technology workers that can’t make this critical pivot. Companies need to ponder the risk of not changing, and not demanding more from their technology investment. Technologists need to grow their leadership skills before the rapidly changing market passes them by.

Crisis and rediscovery

The Chinese symbol for the word “crisis”' consists of two brush strokes. One stands for danger, and the other for opportunity. This is where many technologists and companies find themselves today. A company’s survival depends on speed and time-to-market.  Agile and scrum – if correctly applied – are one way to get there. This is not easy or simple, and technologists need to challenge themselves to grow and stretch – and develop and discover new leadership and interaction skills. In the process, we will rediscover the magic – and the business value – in technology that is driven by feedback and creativity.  

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