Spotify and Apple do it. Coca-Cola relies on it. Direktbank ING does, too. Many start-ups and small and medium-sized businesses have also opted for it: agility and agile working. They have all noticed that this new way of working makes their company more flexible, faster and more innovative.
The transformation began in the software sector. 17 developers published the ‘Agile Manifesto’ in the USA in 2001 to give their work more focus, freedom and meaning. The method can now be found in all sectors, because agile working promises new success against the background of new tasks.
It is true that ‘agile’ is changing the way we work in the long term, but another aspect is decisive. Agile changes our focus at work – who we now work for: the customer. Not the boss, not the plan, not the money. The employees in small, self-organised teams don’t concentrate on producing more work, but more value. The authors formulated this in the four guidelines of their manifesto. They value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working products over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Agile – the concept for digital transformation
But what does agile working really mean? What methods and tools are there? Where does it have the biggest effect: in product development, management or accounting? And what are the costs of this change to agile working?
The answer to the last question is simple: courage, ideas, trust, patience and lots of time. The most difficult investment is putting yourself, your ideas and your valuable time into this new way of working. To do so, employees and managers need to unlearn some things that many still consider to be standard. But to answer the questions in order:
1. What does agile working mean?
Up to now, companies have worked according to the waterfall principle. There is a fixed plan that defines the entire project from start to finish. One department after the other completes its tasks. The organisation is arranged hierarchically. There is always one person who makes decisions and takes responsibility.
Agile working shakes this practice right up. Employees with a wide range of qualifications work together on a project, on equal footing and in small teams, until it is completed. They define the aim together and decide for themselves how to achieve it. In the process, they divide the task into parts and work on each one in short time periods.
Not the boss, but rather the team as a group is responsible for the success. That begins with a short morning meeting in which everyone reports on how they are progressing. Feedback is an equally important part of the communication. The team talk regularly about what is working well, what is not and how the team members want to improve things together. In this way, everyone is able to react more quickly to changed conditions and new ideas
2. What agile methods and tools exist?
Agile working does not function at the push of a button. It is important that everyone from the boss to the apprentice knows why the company needs agility, because it is not just the team, but also the structures that change in an agile organisation. Once curiosity and the need for agile working have been awakened, decide which methods best suit your company.
There are many books, guides and tutorials on the agile transformation. But there is no hammer that hits the nail on the head, but rather methods that act as frameworks. They aren’t and shouldn’t be intended as rigid rules, but provide a framework structure, within which each team works on its own agile practice. These are the four most important frameworks:
This term comes from rugby and means a cross-functional team works according to specified rules and in defined roles. The focus is on daily exchange and flexible re-evaluation of plans. The work takes place in short cycles, called sprints, that are continually repeated. It also involves constructive feedback, a culture of error tolerance, and looking back on your own work.
This method was originally used to optimise production at Toyota. Here, too, self-organisation of the team is central. Post-its on the Kanban board makes clear what is to be done, who is doing what and what has already been done. The employees choose their tasks. The aim is to avoid unnecessary work, recognise bottlenecks and set focal points. These measures are intended to increase productivity and lead to continuous improvement.
This approach solves problems creatively and helps you find good ideas. The concept is based on three pillars: team, space and time. The aim is to develop sensible products that are relevant for the customer. An interdisciplinary team sets about the open process comprising the following steps: understanding, observing, idea finding, verifying/prototyping, improving, implementing and learning.
This leadership and organisation concept is about efficient design of the entire value chain in companies. It strives for the highest quality with minimal waste. The focus is on customer needs. A lean organisation, customer-oriented structures, quick reactions to errors and a high level of personal responsibility help fulfil customer wishes as far as possible and efficiently.
3. Where does it have the biggest effect?
Agility is standard in software development. That allows teams to react more quickly to new developments and exciting changes and to include them in ongoing projects.
Companies are also increasingly using agile methods for project management in marketing, sales and HR, in order to be quick, flexible and creative. It is important that the tasks can be divided into individual steps that are useful as a partial outcome. The tasks should not be routine, nor too standardised. That is why there is less need for agility in controlling and accounting.
However, companies have reported that the effect of agile working only becomes really pronounced when the whole company is doing it. For example, the Dutch ING Bank set the Software department up to be agile for a year, but none of the others. The effect within the team was positive, but the success was not measurable for the company. It is only since the entire organisation started agile working that the balance sheet has been noticeably different.