People will ask, “Can you use agile outside software development? In real business, not just in software teams?” Most experienced agile practitioners will instinctively want to shout, “Yes! Of course!” But intuition apart, where is the evidence? Allan Kelly found some examples and shares how agile works in environments outside software.
I often get asked, “Can you use agile outside software development? In real business, not just in software teams?”
Most experienced agile practitioners will instinctively want to shout, “Yes! Of course!” But intuition apart, where is the evidence?
Looking at the roots of agile software development—lean, agile manufacturing and organizational learning—then the answer is obviously yes. These ideas originated outside software in the first place.
Many practices in agile also originated outside software, such as stand-up meetings, prioritization, and visual management. In fact, these practices are so common, it is hard to say where they originated.
Some practices that originated in software development have been exported. For example, lean start-up is largely test-driven development at a company level. Other practices—usually technical ones, like continuous integration—are restricted to software development, but even here analogous practices can sometimes be found elsewhere.
While the logic for agile working outside of software is compelling, where are the case studies? First, it would be helpful to define what agile is—or might be.
What Agile Is
Defining agile is a lengthy article in its own right, and the Agile Manifesto is of little help outside of software. Still, everyone has a feeling in their bones about what agile is or should be, often stemming as much from the word agile itself as anywhere else. It’s something to do with flexibility, speed, and reactivity, serving some need.
Consider the words of professor Michael A. Cusumano of MIT Sloan School of Management:
“[Agility] comes in different forms, but basically it’s the ability to quickly adapt to or even anticipate and lead change. Agility in the broadest form affects strategic thinking, operations, technology innovation and the ability to innovate in products, processes and business models.”
This might not be a watertight definition, but it is a good working framework: Agile is about change, speed, and dealing with the unexpected and unpredictable; it involves technology and innovation and ranges from operations all the way up to strategy.
There is good news and bad news here. The bad news is that there aren't many examples of agile being used outside software development. But the good news is that, yes, there are some examples.
Exhibit A comes from Lonely Planet in Melbourne. At the 2012 Agile on the Beach conference, Kate Sullivan presented a case study of how the Lonely Planet legal team adopted agile after seeing technology teams using it. The team used a whiteboard with task cards, stand-up meetings, weekly iterations, and prioritization. They even estimated their work, measured flow, and held retrospectives.
The following year, Martin Rowe from Petroc College in Cornwall described how his team used Scrum to deliver a foundation degree in computer science. Again the team used a board with cards, worked in timeboxes to meet deadlines, and created a product backlog with a burn-down chart. They also held stand-up meetings, but these were only weekly, so there was room for improvement.
Martin went as far as to say, “Even badly implemented Scrum works.” Applying just a little bit of agile can help.