Agile methods are not simply a project management that work differently from the classic waterfall method, but they are something more. Agile looks to establish a culture of continuous change, of questioning the status quo, of adapting the organization to ever faster changing needs. It will force management to manage more by goals and objectives, and steer away from micromanagement. It will transform (parts of) the organization into a network organization, away from the traditional hierarchy and matrix models. Above all, it will ensure that management continually questions priorities, and aligns upcoming tasks with business priorities and strategic objectives.

When is the right time to use agile methods? Are they sometimes out of place or overkill? This is definitely a good question to ask before starting on the agile journey. As Simon Sinek says in his famous Ted Talk: “First Ask Why”. What is forcing you to go agile? Why do you think you need it? What problems does it need to solve for you?

The main question to ask is whether or not agile is the right solution to what you are faced with, or whether other methods possibly are more relevant? Basically: Choose smartly between a Hammer and something else, and make sure the entire world does not start to look like a nail to you!

Understanding where agile makes sense

There are many good drivers to push you towards agile project management methods. If your industry is undergoing rapid change, if the environment you operate in is chaotic, fast changing, and complex (think VUCA), Agile is a possible solution. If you are simply looking to make smaller incremental changes, Agile may be overkill. Revolution? Think agile. Evolution? Think lean six sigma.

When looking at your organization, you will see parts of it that are working and functional, and you will see areas where changes are needed. This is normal as organizations (or parts of them) are always working in one of two states: Steady State (requiring smaller changes), or Changing (requiring larger changes).

Steady State: Optimizing an existing organization or process

If you are in a steady state situation and need to improve things incrementally (i.e. optimizing something vs. revolutionizing), then it makes more sense to look towards lean six sigma type methods. These are designed for incremental process improvement and process optimization to increase stability, improve efficiency, or increase productivity incrementally. They have served the enormously competitive and cost conscious automotive industry well for decades, and they can be a great benefit for you as well. Automotive manufacturers have even forced first, second and third tier suppliers to use these methods to ensure quality and improve costs. While using six sigma you may uncover larger, more complex underlying problems which can then be addressed in turn.

Six sigma Frameworks like DMAIC can be applied in this situation, and provide a good set of tools to identify the issues holding up a process and show where the improvements are most likely to have an effect.

Changing: Building and changing an organization or process

If you are in the process of building or changing an organization (i.e. you want to implement a step change, do things differently, or do something completely new), then agile methods make a lot of sense. They want to help you get from A to B in the most resource- and time-efficient way possible.

To Agile or not to Agile?

It’s almost never a clear-cut, black and white question. Parts of your organization may be more steady state and in need of incremental improvements, while others need more drastic changes. Doing both lean six sigma and agile in parallel is not a problem as long as you define the application areas clearly and ensure that the right tools are being used for the right job.

Even if agile is needed, going “all-in” with a big-bang agile initiative is usually not the best alternative – unless external circumstances force you to choose this option. It can be made to work, but needs careful planning, training and implementation. Usually it is best to find an area of the business that can benefit the most from using agile methods.

Ready, willing and able?

To look for places to start implementing agile methods, ask yourself the “ready, willing and able?” question: are the people who will go agile

  • ready – Recognizing the need to achieve the task at hand
  • willing – Motivated to use knowledge, skills and values to achieve the task at hand
  • able – Knowing how to achieve the task at hand

If so, this is a good place to launch a prototype and start establishing an agile culture. A resource to understand what fully agile cultures mean, and what they could look like is Frederic Laloux “Reinventing Organizations”. There are many online resources as well as a book available.

In short, …

If you are faced with a dynamic situation which will force you to change and evolve your organization, look to agile methods. Agile is useful for running short, focused projects (both when trying out agile, or as a pilot for bigger projects to follow) as well as large scale implementations.

Agile isn’t the only game in town, however… traditional waterfall methods still have their place, and lean six sigma methods are also very useful, depending on your situation.

Feedback? Questions?

If you have any comments or feedback, or would like to learn more about implementing agile methods in your organization, please reach out to me at any time.