Agile – Another fad or the future of work?

By Patrick Tambor.

Career insight series.

The Career Insights series consists of articles offering advice on entering the world of work, the more unconventional paths you may take and how you can work to achieve your goals. Stay tuned to receive deeper insights into the dynamic nature of the world of work. agile

 There is a lot of talk about Agile these days; it seems every company is seeking to broadly adopt what started as a more adaptive, iterative, and collaborative approach to software development.  Yes, I just dropped three overused buzzwords in a row.  But I believe that behind those buzzwords is something real, and practical (and possibly subversive – read on).

Oxforddictionaries.com defines agile as “Relating to or denoting a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans” Unfortunately, the problem is that the essence of agile – what should make it transformative for many organizations – is too easily lost in translation, by both developer and business-types.  I’ve listened as members of the former group set forth a series of seemingly non-negotiable methods that feel all too dogmatic (anything that comes with a ‘manifesto’ runs that risk).   And I’ve witnessed the latter simply equate agile with anything that is fast, incomplete, or lacking rigor (agile as an excuse for ‘winging it’).

I’ve oversimplified the paradox perhaps, but somewhere in between is a way of working that, well, can really work.  Agile can be used in all parts of a business; I’ve begun to apply agile in my day to day, and I’d like to share a few things I’ve picked up along the way.  I won’t try to define the intricacies of the method, as much has been said and written already.  Nor will I claim to be an expert, though I have worked my way through a very rich curriculum offered by IBM’s own Agile Academy, and am now preparing to train others.  Here are three things that I’ve learned so far:

  • First, if you’re looking for a set of ironclad instructions, consider this:  agile is, at its core, a mind-set, rooted in a set of values and principles.   The values are trust, respect, openness, and courage:  that sounds almost too pure and good to be taken seriously in a corporate environment, and yet, what an aspiration!  Meanwhile, the principles reflect a focus on outcomes, iterative learning, and self-managed teams.  Frankly, all things that great teams have always done, no matter what it’s called.
  • Second, ‘mind-set ‘ does not mean there is no rigor, or method; in fact there are a number of agile practices that bring the values and principles to life, many of which you can start implementing today, even as part of a virtual team.  A few I’m experimenting with are stand-ups, retrospectives, and Kanban boards.
  • Finally, so much of agile feels intuitive, natural, and a return to common sense that it’s easy to dismiss the potential for culture change it brings.  Cross-functional, self-managed teams is almost a cliche by now, but if you really commit to it, then you are firing a shot at the manager or leader whose power and perceived self-worth is based on command and control.  An adaptive, iterative process seems reasonable, unless you live for predictability and order.  In those companies where traditional, top-down management is the name of the game, agile is a serious game-changer and by definition will be an affront to some.

Right now, in my early days of experimentation, I can actually see how agile will make teams more productive – and happier – if they have not been working in this way. That’s pretty radical stuff.


Patrick Tambor is Transformation, Talent & Learning Leader with IBM. You can find him on Linkedin.

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