Agile Work – What’s Behind the Buzzword of this New Work Method?

January 12, 2021

It was back in 2001, when 17 software developers in Utah created the Agile Manifesto. With four values and twelve principles, they laid the foundation for a way to work which has, in the 20 years since its conception, spread far beyond the IT sector: agile work. The working world has been undergoing a number of changes in the last two decades, even the notion of work itself has been reconsidered to include approaches like New Work or Work-life Integration. Agility, too, has established itself as an important strategy among these new approaches. Yet what are the methods for implementing these approaches, such as Scrum or Design Thinking, all about?

The journey is the reward: What is ‘agile’ work? 

When something is agile, it can move quickly and easily, it possesses flexibility. However, agile work is not only about a ‘flexible’ way to work - it’s an approach widely subject to interpretation, so accordingly there’s no one correct way to do it. Agility within a company may make use of numerous approaches and methods, which each part of the company, each team, and each individual should explore in order to decide how they can best apply these methods to their work.

Taken literally, the journey is the reward can be considered the mantra of agile work. Once you know where you should end up with your project (the project‘s goal has been set), the path you take to get there can be determined along the way. Project steps are segmented into short sprints, so that results can be evaluated at regular intervals. This also allows for revisions, amendments to the project’s next steps, or reprioritization. The goal here is for companies and teams to rapidly and successfully adapt to changes in their environment. A high degree of flexibility allows for swift reactions to any type of change - in the world, on the market, or in the team – and thereby enables teams to work more constructively with one another. Agile working thrives on a high level of flexibility, the ability to act quickly, innovation and proactivity. These are the prerequisites for implementing agile work methods, as well as their advantage over other working strategies.

“Agile working is about bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” – The Agile Organisation

Which values does agile work embrace? 

Agile companies are often viewed as New Work’s poster children, since their companies include organizational structures consistent with New Work approaches. Below are some of the core values of agile work:

  • Becoming more customer-centric: Working with customers is a top priority. Optimally, this customer-focused approach is integrated into working procedures by maintaining an active feedback loop to consistently receive input from customers. The customer’s involvement can help a company to recognize their needs, to identify problems early on and to work on resolving any issues encountered.
  • Making decisions together: Hierarchies are being, to a great extent, practically dismantled. When it comes to decision-making, employees are being given more autonomy. Their increased participation in decision-making has lead to the development of a feedback culture, an ongoing mutual exchange of information that keeps everyone pulling together to reach a common goal. Such exchanges also help to spread knowledge and create synergies.
  • Iterative development: Step by step and continually improving could very well be agile work’s motto. In agile work, the ability to adapt along the way is more important than sticking to a prescribed plan as if it were set in stone.
  • The agile mindset: Instead of relying on processes and tools, the agile mindset focuses on individuals and their interactions. Important aspects of this mindset include the ability to think for oneself and beyond daily tasks, to change one’s thinking or even start over from scratch.
  • The best product: It’s certainly only logical. As with any working method, agile work ultimately aims to produce the best possible product via its agility.

Agile work methods: Incorporating more agility into your teams. 

Agile work has proven to be a recipe for success in many companies and teams, often totally changing the way they work. Perhaps you’re thinking about giving agility a try in your company? We’ve included some methods below which are relatively simple to try out in your teams. It’s important to note, however, that attaining agility requires practice and may not be the appropriate solution for every company.

  • Scrum: Scrum is a method for agile project management, which was developed by two creators of the Agile Manifesto, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. According to Sutherland and Schwaber, Scrum consists of: three roles (Product Owner, Scrum Master and the Development Team), five events (Sprint, Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Sprint Retroperspective) and three artifacts (Product Backlog, Sprint Backlog and Product Increment). This project management method was originally developed for software development, but has been adopted for other types of projects as well.
  • Design Thinking: Not having much to do with ‘design’ in the traditional sense, Design Thinking is rather an innovative, dynamic and iterative customer-focused process. Its six stages (understand, observe, define, ideate, prototype, test) are more like non-linear modes, meaning they can be carried out in any order or repeated as necessary until the ideal solution has been achieved. The Hasso Plattner Institut, Germany’s well-know IT university, has even been operating its own School of Design Thinking since 2007. Students of all disciplines and professionals from various fields come here to learn more about implementing Design Thinking processes.
  • Holacracy: Holacracy is an integrated company management method which fosters a company’s agility. The holacratic approach consists of five essential components: defining roles, establishing self-organizing teams or circles, practicing self-governance and holding meetings with other circles, deciding on operational processes in tactical meetings, and the ongoing maintenance of a holacracy in the company. Creating a holacracy means re-thinking company structures to promote self-reliance and task-oriented organization without an emphasis on tall hierarchies or job titles.

Most importantly, agility within a company means getting rid of bureaucratic hurdles while being dynamic and experimental. There’s no masterplan for agile work, but it can only exist with an open attitude towards change.