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Agile leadership

  • Posted On: 10th June 2013
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“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” — Edwards Deming

The Agile approach to leading project teams has been gaining attention for some time now. So, why are proponents for Agile talking about it so much? Using Agile applications development paradigms in the software world, a set of services can be built to address business specific functional components. The big win with Agile is its ability to be modified more easily to address changing business needs. Solving problems and providing value to customers is the crux of innovation in business.

Agile application development was defined as a set of software development methods a few years ago. An Agile Application is distinguished from average applications in that it is a loosely coupled set of services with a decoupled orchestration layer. It is easily modified to address evolving business needs and it is scalable by design. More and more organisations, regardless of size and location, are finding real value in Agility.

What is Agility?
Innovation must solve a problem that customers care about, and provide a solution for which they are willing to pay. The Agile approach has a number or key attributes that can be used to drive innovation.

The key attributes of Agility are:

Learning and adaptation: Traditional approaches expect that we can forecast how the project will unfold with reasonable precision. The Agile approach accepts that there are many things we cannot anticipate, so it is structured to allow us to first learn about those unknowns and then adapt to what we learn.
Collaboration: The Agile approach places high value on all stakeholders collaborating continuously.
Customer focus: The customer is the central focus of an Agile project and is actively involved throughout.
Small self-directed teams: Agility capitalises on self-directed teams and recognises that small teams can self-direct most effectively.
Lean principles: The principles that have been proven by Lean Manufacturing are embodied in Agility.
Progressive elaboration: We expect to learn both about the business, as well as system requirements as the project progresses. So, trying to nail them down in a full-blown specification at the beginning of the project does not make sense. Agile projects establish a roadmap and elaborate the details as they are needed.
Incremental delivery: The best way to ensure we are building the right system is to regularly get feedback from our customer. Agility consistently includes incremental delivery of the product to the customer.
Iterative planning and adaptation: Agile projects place a high value on planning. They engage in planning at various levels of detail and engage in it regularly. Again, this is driven by the fact that we must adapt our plans as we learn.
The Value of Agility
I attended a lecture by former US President Bill Clinton in May, 2009, on behalf of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. In it, President Clinton talked about how The Clinton Global Initiative uses Agility to lead innovation. He emphasised the need for effective change. President Clinton said, “My daughter, who is studying healthcare policy in graduate school, is schooling me that the biggest financial burden on our healthcare system will not be the aging baby boomer population; it will be the outdated healthcare delivery system.”  President Bill Clinton used this as one of the examples of delivery systems and financial models that need to be reinvented in an Agile setting.
There are many reasons why companies find the Agile approach, when it is implemented as intended, to provide value. The value of Agility that is cited includes:
The right product: The customer is continuously involved in the project, ensuring that valuable systems are being built. In addition, the customer accepts or provides critical feedback on each increment of the product that is produced. With this level of involvement by the customer, the risk of building the wrong product is mitigated.
Quality: Agility always includes a strong focus on the quality of what is built. This includes not only the customer’s acceptance testing, but also many technical quality practices. Properly functioning Agile teams produce high-quality deliverables.
Schedule and budget: Time-boxing of an Agile project means that its schedule and budget are more closely adhered to. If things do not work out as planned, the low-priority features can be cut short. If an Agile project does need to extend its time-box it would be with the customer’s full concurrence.
Early warning: Because an Agile project is essentially a phased set of short mini-projects, problems become apparent very early. This makes it to more feasible to resolve.
Adapting to change: Change is a fact of business. An Agile project can adapt to changes much more effectively than a traditional project. After all, innovation is actually the process of uncovering a problem for which there is no solution, or no good solution, and then developing a way to solve the problem.
Every business values innovation. Agile innovation should also lead to growth opportunities. If a strategically sounds business approach is in place, Agility provides what it promises.

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