We tend to take the fact that agility is important as a given, when the reality is that not everyone in the business world has reached the same conclusion. Thus, it’s important sometimes to take a step back and examine why agility actually matters, so that when we’re faced with people who aren’t as convinced as we are, we have salient points that we can raise to help them understand the value that agility brings with it. Here are a few important things to remember when thinking about why agility is important in our jobs…
Agility Reflects Reality
First and foremost, accepting uncertainty, driving it out, and reprioritizing efforts based on new information isn’t just being “agile”. It’s how the world works — take a look at your product’s roadmaps for the past three years, and I’m confident you’ll find one interesting thing — as the time projections moved out from the date of the roadmap, the certainty that those things would be done diminishes rapidly. Additionally, when you compare these roadmaps year-over-year, you’ll find that there are many projects on one roadmap that repeat on the next, and maybe the next…but that never really got done. What happened here? Simple, priorities changed, usually based on customer or market pressure and new information. While these choices are taking place on a 6-, 9-, or 12-month rolling basis, they are changes. And that’s all that being agile really asks us to do — to take those long-term changes in direction and distill them down into smaller and smaller timeframes, until we’re able to define, prioritize, and commit to work iteration by iteration. We’re taking what companies already do and making it happen more rapidly and with slightly more structure.
Agility Means Flexibility
While a lot of people point to the speed factor that agility is purported to provide (though in many cases you wind up slowing down quite a bit before you can accelerate in an agile world), the truly biggest positive that agility brings to the table for organizations is flexibility — the freedom to make the right decisions at the right time, based on the right amount of information. This is contrasted with the more common long-term roadmap commitments that many organizations try to make, which results in disappointment both within the organization as well as outside it. Note, however, that flexibility should not be chaos — agility doesn’t mean that you’re constantly changing things in a willy-nilly fashion, catering to the whims of the HiPPOs in the organization…it means taking a “just-in-time” approach to decision-making, based on data and reasoning. Flexibility allows adaptation which allows success; unnecessary rigor causes stagnation and failure in the long run.
Agility is the Way of the Present
We live in an era of instant gratification, of 2-day free shipping, of powerful microcomputers in the palm of our hands. People can literally go from no knowledge at all to a serviceable programmer in just a couple weeks, using resources online that are freely available. All of this has fundamentally changed the entire world, including business and product development. We no longer have the luxury of shipping physical media that has a lifecycle of 12-24 months, with long regression testing cycles. We now have 0-day patches, SaaS freemium offerings, apps downloadable on the fly — and uninstalled just as easy. The expectation of customer, users, even buyers, is that things will be on a path of constant improvement and zero issues, or they’ll jump to the next most available platform. The old classic reliables of support contracts, switching costs, and sunk costs simply don’t apply in this day and age. The only way to create a successful product in this world is to be responsive to your users’ needs and to be flexible enough to change your priorities when the market demands it.