Agile is one of the most popular project management methodologies in technology companies. But many agile project management strategies can also be applied to variety of other industries, including small businesses.
Agile has grown rapidly among technology startups because gives teams an effective way to tackle high-risk, high-complexity projects by breaking them down into manageable deliverables. These frequent deliverables allow project stakeholders to track tangible progress, while simultaneously enabling software developers to quickly change direction by soliciting feedback frequently.
For years, corporate America pondered this new buzzword and toyed with the idea of bringing this new management style into the cubicles. Many companies have chosen to adopt variations of agile or other iterative project management methodologies, such as SCRUM.
Even the government has begun to adopt various agile project management principles. In 2017, Deloitte reported that 80% of major federal IT projects are using some form of agile or iterative project management methodology.
With government agencies adopting agile methodologies, it's clear that agile here to stay. Fortunately, the agile movement need not remain confined to tech startups or even large corporate IT teams. The principles of agile can translate to project management across all avenues of business, including small businesses.
In this article, we'll explain what agile is exactly, and how its principles can benefit small businesses.
What exactly is Agile project management?
Agile principles put the customer front and center, and challenge employees to embrace change at every step to ensure that the customer’s needs are met. As often as possible, agile methodologies require practitioners to quickly test their theories about what a customer wants by delivering to that customer and soliciting feedback.
In the software world, that might mean adding a new feature to a mobile app and checking the comments to see how well the feature is received. In retail, it might mean bundling products together, putting the result prominently on display for a week, and monitoring the change in the sale of those products.
In both of the above examples, these actions are considered experiments. The new feature could be a hit and the reviews in the app store would reflect this. Or, it could be an absolute bust, and the development team would have to quickly change direction to account for the new feedback from customers. Similarly, with bundled products, sales of bundled products could predictably increase. Upon closer inspection of the numbers, however, the store manager might find that the incremental sales from the new display are not worth the man-hours needed to create the bundle (and any associated marketing materials).
Distilled in entrepreneurial terms, agile is about failing forward. Each experiment is designed to address customers’ needs, and will result in lessons learned, either in terms of what customers want or don’t want. The exciting part about agile for small businesses is that entrepreneurs already know how to do this—every small business gets its start through trial and error.
The purpose of agile is to translate successful entrepreneurs' instinctive actions into clear guidelines and a process that a growing team can follow and mimic in a repeatable fashion.
How do teams practice Agile?
One of the key aspects of agile is that it works best in small teams, where face-to-face communication is the primary mode of communication. This is great news for small businesses where all team members are physically collocated, or for teams that are small enough to hold video conferences through web conferencing software .
Agile emphasizes face-to-face communication because real-time collaboration allows team members to hold each other accountable. For example, if a team member has a great idea for attracting new customers by putting marketing decals on the team’s personal vehicles, team members are encouraged to ask questions to flesh out the new idea. This idea will then prioritized against other demands on the team’s time and budget to determine if and when it will be implemented.
Once a project is approved via group discussion, team members check in regularly to provide status updates during team meetings. When a team member runs into any roadblocks in accomplishing one or more goals, other team members are expected to help unblock the team member so that they can continue making progress on their work. Work responsibilities may be shuffled around and priorities might change based on new information, but because the team is collaborating to achieve the same goals, the high-priority projects can get done first.
What are the benefits of agile?
The purpose of agile is to minimize risks in complex projects. Breaking down a larger initiative into smaller, bite-sized chunks allows agile teams to focus on delivering quality work. As a side effect, you should see increased productivity from your team, and fewer customer complaints. In turn, this can result in increased revenue.
In addition, as businesses grow and the size of the team increases, it can become difficult to get a good picture of where each project is in the pipeline, what’s been done, and what still remains to be done. Because agile encourages you to break down projects into smaller, manageable deliverables, you should be able to consistently demonstrate progress on regular intervals. Each team’s timeline will vary, from two weeks to eight weeks, but once established, leadership should expect to see consistent results.
The adoption of agile is designed to be customizable for each team and situation, and it may require extensive experimentation to arrive at the right fit for an organization. Luckily, small businesses are accustomed to trying new ideas and failing forward toward success. The smaller team sizes of small businesses is ideal for the face-to-face collaborative culture that agile touts as one of its strengths.
Bring that entrepreneurial spirit to growing teams by following the agile principles and watch the results transform your culture and your team's results.