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How to land the plane

How to land the plane

Being agile is like landing a plane successfully. If we fail, we risk sliding off the runway into the trees. That’s currently what most company’s do with every project – slide off the runway.

So how do we ensure that commercial projects don’t slide off the runway and end up taking too long to complete, costing too much money or both? The answer is to approach them in a different way. Remove the process of having specialists working independently on projects, with each working to lengthy, staged completion dates. As once one completion date is missed, the whole project starts to slide and risks failing. Working independently also risks opportunities to improve a product being implemented too late or missed completely. Apart from time and money lost, the company inevitably ends up with a product or service that is less customer focused, as well as deflated employees. This is the crux of agile project management today.

It’s a strategy that has its roots in car manufacturing. Toyota first developed a technique which took all the specialists on the assembly line and turned them into a cross-functional team that worked together and helped each other. The foreman or manager was removed and replaced by a facilitative team leader who also helped with the work. Tasks were completed in short cycles allowing products to be reviewed and a retrospective completed on how the process could be improved in the next product cycle. The result was better quality cars and an improvement in production.

This process of cross-functional teams working together over short cycles is core to what today we call agile. Over the next 20 years we observed the best agile teams in the engineering world and tried to figure out how to apply that way of working to the software sector, which is a victim of product delays and high costs. We adapted an agile methodology called ‘scrum’, the principles of which not only apply to software development, but work across all sectors. Today, over 75% of what people call agile is the scrum methodology developed over two decades ago. So why is a process that seemingly has its roots in the past so relevant today?

If we accept that agile project management improves quality and increases productivity, which in turn reduces costs, then it is crucial to adopt if a company is to remain competitive and survive. This is as fundamental today as it ever was. The difficult part is not accepting the concept, but implementing it. Unless you are a new start up where the strategy can be embedded from the beginning, the biggest resistance to implementing an agile project management programme will be the change to a company’s existing organisational structure.

In order to get good cross-functional teams working together requires a management structure that actually helps teams figure out what to do and how to do it and, importantly, lets them get on with it. Letting go and allowing teams to collaborate is perhaps the most difficult aspect for companies operating a more traditional structure.

The good news is that it’s not impossible for traditional companies to embrace change. We have an example of this with the current changes Microsoft is undertaking. Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft is backing a more agile approach that will see a move away from traditional development techniques that take months or years to succeed, in favour of a more collaborative team approach to make Microsoft more efficient and allow it to cut costs.

Good leadership and persistence will be crucial to success. But we know that those companies that do persist with change are more likely to survive. In contrast, the companies at risk will be the ones where senior management continue to allow people to build their empires and power hubs at the expense of being a competitive company in the modern world. These companies will continue to fall short of the runway and eventually fail, as they will be unable to compete.

See Jeff Sutherland’s talk at TEDx Aix here.

Jeff Sutherland is one of the world’s leading experts of organisational management. He is the creator of Scrum, and was a co-writer of the Agile Manifesto, which marked the start of the Agile movement.

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