Why Be Agile? Embracing the 'known unknown'

Published 20 September 2019 by Christina Ohanian

Why be agile? Because we simply can’t predict the future. Christina Ohanian, Circus Street’s Scrum Master and Agile Coach, discusses why we should embrace the “known unknown”, and the challenges that come with it.

It’s a bit of a puzzling and uncomfortable feeling – the “known unknown”. 

For more and more organisations, however, dealing with the unknown is simply a part of business as usual. And it’s a reality that needs to be accepted and embraced.

 

What does “embracing the unknown” mean for businesses today?

It’s not a new realisation that our world is continuously changing, and at an intense speed. The very nature of how we do business, how we communicate, and how we scale as organisations, is at the mercy of digital change – what I like to call “the known unknown”. 

So what does this mean for businesses today? I often get asked the question: “How are companies able to keep up and not fall behind as technology changes so rapidly?” 

My answer has been the same for the last decade, and won’t be changing any time soon: 

Organisations need to be comfortable with change, learning to inspect and adapt with today’s digital evolution. They also need to be prepared to change direction often, especially in the face of industry disruptors and competition.

For me this is one of the core reasons why an agile business is more likely to thrive today over those that are still working and functioning through more traditional approaches.

 

What is being “agile” all about? 

The very essence and purpose of being agile is about delivering customer value, early and often (whether that’s in the context of products and services or internal business operations). Through short iterations, agile ways of working enable regular and quick feedback as well as the ability to re-prioritise and change direction as and when needed. 

Now, while most people think that agile ways of working came about in the early 2000’s along with the Agile Manifesto, this isn’t entirely accurate. The Agile Manifesto has certainly played a bit and vital role in advocating and building a greater sense of awareness of the behaviours and values of agile – however, the roots of the concept go back much earlier. 

 

A (short!) history of agile

In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a big concern around what’s sometimes referred to as “application delivery lag”, i.e the time taken between validating a business need to actually developing a product or service in order to serve that business need. 

The challenge became apparent when businesses attempted to quickly move on to new ideas and initiatives, whilst production was still in progress for the previous business need. With businesses moving so quickly or changing direction and production being left behind, in many cases, work was being left unfinished in order to move on to the next business need – or worse, it was no longer valuable or relevant. 

Through frustration, many thought leaders had a deep desire to find a way of working that was more timely, responsive, and valuable. Slowly, new approaches to delivering products and services started to emerge. 

However, it’s not until recent years that agile has really seen some of the biggest business turnarounds and benefits from an organisational standpoint.

 

Why become an agile business? 

Where to start? It would be hard for me to list everything. However, here’s a starter for ten:

  • Building up an ability to adapt to change. This, for me, is core to being agile. Currently, what we’re seeing is new startups paving the way for new innovations and a means of disrupting any industry these days. So if organisations are not able to keep up with the competition and adapt their strategy, they could very well be on their way to the graveyard. A little unpleasant, I know, but nevertheless a reality. Having the flexibility to change direction and re-prioritise is essential. 

 

  • Validating ideas early and often. Whether you’re developing software, or operating at a strategic level for internal operations, any decision-making around new changes or ideas is vital to the process. Agile allows you to bring that decision-making to the forefront much earlier in the process. By taking stock, and validating your ideas early, and reiterating if necessary, organisations can avoid wasted work.

  • Working smarter. One of my favourite agile principles is number ten: “Simplicity – the art of maximising the work not done.” This, for me, is where the magic happens. Whilst many do tend to think agile means doing more through working faster, this is actually a bit of a myth. Being agile means learning to work smarter, make smarter decisions, and becoming efficient. This can be applicable to how teams communicate and collaborate, as well as how products and services are developed — particularly in order to avoid massive losses. 

  • Retaining and delighting customers. Continuous delivery of products and services over traditional “big bang” delivery allows customers to feedback on what they like or don’t like and in return, this helps steer businesses in the direction that allows them to retain and delight their customers.  

  • Alignment and focus on strategic goals. One benefit that doesn’t get a lot of airtime is the fact that agile can also help give a higher sense of organisational alignment and focus, with everyone working towards the same goal. I often love to use the analogy of “steering a ship” – and in fact David Marquet, a motivational speaker and author of Turn the Ship Around, gave a great talk on the subject.

  • Autonomy and self-organising teams. Agile ways of working encourages less of the traditional command and control and instead focuses on empowering teams to make their own decisions. Mastering sustainable levels of autonomy and enabling people and teams to make their own decisions, can have very powerful, positive effects on feeling valued, being trusted and having a sense of purpose within a team or an organisation. 

 

So, we’ve heard about the benefits, however where do the challenges lie?

Its true, introducing agile ways of working doesn’t come without its challenges. So here are some things all organisations should take into account when shifting to more agile ways of working:

  • It doesn't happen overnight and needs commitment from all levels of leadership
  • Agile naturally implies a change in culture, leadership models and this notion of collective accountability 
  • Along with good leadership, it’s important that there is clear direction and alignment 
  • Agile doesn’t mean ‘no planning’ – in fact, it requires just enough planning, and an iterative feedback loop, in order to strike gold
  • Lastly, agile may have to mean a change in mindset – and you probably won’t be able to “do things the old way” any more.

 

This may seem like a lot of challenges to have to deal with, “just” to change and evolve the way we work, which requires real patience and perseverance. But take it from me: the benefits really do outweigh the effort.

There’s a great saying: Adapt or Die. I love this saying, and it’s never been more appropriate than right now. Agile organisations are those that truly embrace agility in its entirety and at all levels, embracing the “known unknown” and adapting to change. 

 

Circus Street can help you achieve lasting transformation

As a global online learning business, we help organisations navigate the uncertainties of technology-driven future by building their digital capabilities – and become more agile.

To find out how Circus Street has empowered organisations by building their agility, see our testimonials page. Or sign up for a free trial of our lessons to see how we can help drive the digital capability of your own team.


Find out more at www.circusstreet.com.

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