Why Use Agile Processes Outside of IT?


Liz Barnett writes that beyond IT, the most frequent adoption of agile processes is found in teams using Scrum for team management. Agile processes won't provide the answers to all of our challenges. But if you dig beneath the surface, you might discover some interesting ways to use these ideas to address complex problems.

Instead of asking "why," companies are asking "why not?" use agile approaches outside of the software development organization. In this time of hyper-changing businesses and global competition, pragmatism is essential. Many agile practices lend themselves to solving challenging problems, regardless of the context. This is not to say that agile processes are the next silver bullet; we know that this will never be true. But it is encouraging to see how and where agile practices are being adopted in organizations that have nothing to do with software development. 

Let's look at it from the business perspective. It is not hard to extrapolate common IT challenges to those of other organizations. Three stand out as being on the hot lists for most organizations:

  • Delivering value-driven initiatives;
  • Managing global organizations; and
  • Complying with industry and government regulations.

This is not rocket science. Many agile practices are just common-sense approaches to solving rapidly changing, complex problems. In some cases, IT staff lead the way and bring their successful techniques to various business organizations. In others, the businesses don't know anything about agile practices at all, but if you look closely you'll see that that is exactly what they're doing. IT may have the opportunity to drive profound changes in how other areas of the business are run.

Value-driven Initiatives
The emphasis on delivering value, in business terms, is one that is slowly taking hold in IT shops. Rather than being accountable for producing working (i.e., high quality) software, IT teams must deliver software that is directly tied to some business metric. Teams must produce deliverables frequently, on the customer's terms. Unfortunately, this is a very slow process but it is at least on the radar for many CIOs.

Every organization, be it human resources, back-office financials, or product development, faces tremendous pressure to run more efficiently and contribute to the bottom line. Whether the key business metrics are product revenue, stock price, assets managed, or customers served, initiatives must be aligned. 

In forcing teams to deliver frequent results (code or any other deliverable) that are prioritized by the business, agile processes facilitate value-driven initiatives. The weakest link for most companies is measurement: what do you need to track in a particular organization or project in order to determine if value is being delivered? Technology needs to play a greater role in tracking and communicating value delivered, particularly for organizations that do not manage information in financial terms.

I loved reading Michele Slinger's blog about how, when mayor of New York City, Rudy Guiliani addressed issues of crime and welfare in an agile way. Among the changes he instituted, he prioritized lists of short-term initiatives and changed metrics to better represent the city government's goals. If a bureaucratic environment such as New York City government can benefit from agile approaches, certainly less structured environments can as well.

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