Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. While most people associate the word with sports, it also applies to workflows and construction processes. In product development, agility is about striking a balance between rapid action and fast change, while maintaining clarity, structure, and stability. Agile systems can help improve product quality, user experience, team transparency, provide more opportunities to iterate, and involve more stakeholders.
For entrepreneurs, agility is essential to gain momentum while keeping costs low. The advantages of agility also extend beyond tangible products - teams can reap the rewards of agile processes such as a greater sense of direction, purpose, and innovation. In fact, a study by McKinsey found that 70 percent of agile companies rank in the top quartile for organizational health.
As demand for robust and reliable software steadily rises, agile product development empowers companies to test their early-stage work sooner, and accelerate their time to market. Whereas previous approaches to product development have been inefficient and lengthy, being agile means continuously collaborating and building atop of an existing knowledge foundation.
Here's a simple guide to agile product development, tailored towards entrepreneurs:
What is agile product development?
The concept of agile development first surfaced in the 1970s, when critics began revising the 'waterfall' methodology - which emphasizes linear, sequential workflows, and progress based on the deliverables of each phase. In software development the 'waterfall' structure risks overwhelming customers with long-term details and commitments, without much flexibility or opportunity to change. Not to mention, developers could complete a product using the 'waterfall' methodology only to realize that the client is not satisfied with the end result.
In response, an agile approach focuses on self-organizing and cross-functional teams that have greater autonomy and liberty. These teams typically operate within agile frameworks like a scrum, where there is a product owner, scrum master, and a development group that have different responsibilities in building the product.
The idea of scrums is that new versions of a product can be continually reviewed and updated while being tested among real users - thus delivering a functional product in a short timeframe. Agile teams work according to 'sprint' phases (typically organized by weeks) with a set of goals that are identified based on previous sprint successes and customer value. If goals cannot be met, the following sprint is reprioritized and organized incorporating what worked and didn't work.
With agile workflows, customers are involved throughout and expected to provide feedback in review stages. By having smaller, manageable development cycles, it's easier to adapt products and perfect the outcome. Rather than assume what customers want - or force them to agree on a single vision early on - agility allows them to be present at every step of the journey.
At its core, and as stated in the Agile Manifesto for Software Development, agility is:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
Who manages agile product development in a large organization?
Companies like Apple, IBM, and Microsoft utilize agile product development. In large organizations like these, there tends to be a more official style of agility, however, that does not compromise agile teams' self-sufficiency. Many businesses adopt the scrum formation, with a Business Owner, Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development team. Despite the formalized structure, large organizations concentrate on motivating all agile members, and implementing a sound architecture to support individuals.
Here's a breakdown of the core roles:
This person acts as the mediator between the scrum and the organization or client. They are responsible for maximizing compliance and ROI of agile processes, plus the overall value of the results delivered. They are additionally the person who enacts Program Increment planning, where the team roadmap and vision is laid out.
Shortened to PO, this person is a core stakeholder in the ongoing project. They work with both the Development team and Business Owner to track and communicate the team's progress. They are responsible for delivering versions of the product that align with customer's needs, as well as supporting the internal team, and coordinating all tasks.
This person ensures that teams practice agile principles and serves as a type of scrum coach. They are responsible for removing obstacles in processes, preventing interruptions or distractions, shaping a productive environment for the team, handling team dynamics, and facilitating a positive relationship between the PO and other members. Scrum Masters are often compared to Project Managers.
These are an in-house group of developers and designers who write the code and format the product. This team is typically made up of front and back-end developers, UX designers, and quality assurance testers. These roles work closely together to build and reiterate the product or service. Scrum teams have a bottom-up management style, so although the development team is under the umbrella of the Scrum Master and PO, they are self-organizing.
How to build in an agile way as an entrepreneur with a small team
Startups don't have a disposable budget like large organizations to implement agility in the same manner. Nonetheless, there are a few simple techniques that can build agile teams in smaller companies and lay the groundwork for a long-term, successful agile strategy:
Pinpoint the problem being solved
Agility allows for flexibility but has to be guided by a clear problem. If teams are given too-broad an overview of projects, they'll struggle to iterate efficiently and feel driven. Having a well-defined target will ensure the pace of work stays consistently high, as people can act and react within short periods. Just as a business idea needs to be valuable and offer a new solution, agility is most effective when it also has a narrower scope to operate within.
Self-functioning teams mean just that - self-functioning. There is no cause for entrepreneurs to micromanage or dominate in decision-making. Comparable to a Scrum Master, an entrepreneur is a facilitator and enabler, not a manager. The trick here is to nurture agile teams by shaping an optimal environment for them to do their best work. Things should be kept simple - being concise and direct is far more beneficial than long-winded meetings with heavy jargon.
Review work often
Like agile processes themselves, entrepreneurs should frequently review the work being completed. This isn't to critique output, but to identify any gaps in processes and address them early on. For entrepreneurs, these reviews are what generate air-tight teams that can later be scaled and see the biggest business impact.
Run daily standups
Standups are daily meetings that take place whenever it is appropriate for the whole team. They shouldn't last longer than 15 minutes, and can take place wherever the team feels most comfortable. Standups are not for in-depth discussions but quick, simplified points about what people did yesterday, what they're doing today, and any bottlenecks along the way. These meetings keep everyone aware of progress and help build a sense of collectiveness.
Create regular stories
A story is how a task is documented. Depending on the technology used by entrepreneurs and their team, a story could be a Trello card, JIRA ticket or in-house tool. Whenever someone suggests a new feature, finds a bug, needs an update or any kind of action taken, they should make a story. By storing these tasks, the company can keep track of what is pending, what is done, and what could be done.
Host weekly retrospectives
Shortened to 'retros', these are brief meetings to reflect on what has gone well and not so well during the week. They're typically held before the weekly sprint planning, so teams can analyze what exactly to change for the next week. Retros are also a chance to establish why stories haven't been closed and what distractions have been diverting the team's productivity.
Arguably the most important way to build agile teams, communication is crucial for people to understand their role, business priorities, user feedback, and influential changes to processes. Entrepreneurs should not separate themselves from agile teams; they should be present and accessible, and initiate relevant conversations. For example, in the remote shift taking place, entrepreneurs have to communicate how agility can thrive in the new working conditions.
Smaller companies are sometimes best-suited to agile practices because they can pivot more easily and have more freedom to experiment. Naturally, as the company grows, teams may fear that the intimate culture they once had is lost, which negatively affects agility. When hiring new members for agile teams, they have to be brought up to speed on what agility means in that particular company. Invest in training that teaches newcomers about agile product development without jeopardizing the culture already in place.
Agility helps teams (and organizations as a whole) be more alert and reactive in ambiguous and turbulent environments. For software - a fast-paced and highly-competitive industry - being agile means welcoming change, and maintaining a competitive advantage. The sooner entrepreneurs adopt an agile mentality and infuse it into their companies, the better poised they are for real growth and genuine innovation in their spheres.