The tech industry is known for trying lots of radical new things, from office-less open floor plans to flat organizational structures. We’ve seen lots of these experiments (we are in Silicon Valley, after all), but we’ve found that only a few stand the test of time.
There’s one experiment in particular that’s gone from radical new approach to staple. That staple is agile development — and it can serve as a huge competitive advantage for small businesses.
You may be thinking, isn’t that just an engineering or software thing? At one point it was, yes — much like the Internet was once “just a military thing.” Today, the same Silicon Valley-born principles that Forbes calls “the best-kept management secret on the planet” are working wonders for small businesses of all kinds.
The secret is in the simplicity. Back in 2001, a cadre of developers met at a Utah ski resort and drew up the extremely brief Manifesto for Agile Software Development:
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
We weren’t kidding about the simplicity; along with the developers’ signatures, that’s the entire document that helped guide a mammoth tech industry into the 21st century.
Sure, few would argue that it’s not in the best interests of any modern business to focus on interactions with customers, prize their informed suggestions, and react with agility to real-time shifts in the business environment. But how does it translate into day-to-day operations?
“At the core of agile methodology is flexibility, and that’s a big part of what makes it so effective,” says Giancarlo Lionetti, who works with engineers and designers daily to manage Dropbox’s web properties. “Agile makes it easier for you and your team to focus on the immediate tasks at hand, but it also lets you easily move future plans around — so you can keep projects aligned to current priorities, even if those priorities frequently shift (which is the case in most industries these days).”
Consider the high-profile case study of Eric Nuzum. When the Vice President of Programming at National Public Radio adopted an “agile-inspired” method for developing new programs — an approach that streamlined production schemes and invited listeners and local station directors to jump into the show-shaping process — the move worked. Successful shows like “TED Radio Hour,” “Ask Me Another,” and “Cabinet of Wonders” came through the pipeline faster — and at one-third the usual cost.
“At the core of agile methodology is flexibility, and that’s a big part of what makes it so effective. ”
– Giancarlo Lionetti, Product Marketing at Dropbox
Others agile converts, like Land O’Frost CEO David van Eekeren, credit agile concepts for getting their businesses through a shaky period of economic downturn. The lunchmeat seller turned its attention toward the manifesto’s “individuals and interactions” priority, installing flat-screen TVs in the break rooms that show organizational updates and info. Keeping employees in the loop like that went miles towards keeping the team’s efforts in sync — and keeping the company afloat. “We felt  was a good time to step back and take a fresh look at our company vision,” van Eekeren says. “Becoming more focused, fast, and flexible to face these uncertain times made a lot of sense to us.”
Then there’s the inspiring, offbeat story of Hemant Naidu, a Canadian software developer who found himself having a nightmare of a time with the logistics of his own wedding plans. By using agile-derived management methods, he and his frazzled fiancée were able to manage the whole event and save the big day in only two short weeks — a task that had seemed nearly impossible. Today, Naidu uses the same methods to manage his own successful portrait and wedding photography business.
The stories go on, but the message is clear — if you’re a business leader willing to buck a few still-entrenched traditions of management, then agile development may be the best way to move fast and stay competitive in an increasingly demanding business landscape.
While you ponder that little manifesto above, remember: agile is more of a mindset than a rigid recipe for success. Making agile development work for you means reading up on the method, educating yourself on its potential and, above all, keeping an eye out for the features that ignite your own creative spark and speak to your own unique development needs. That imagination component is key; how else could a manifesto so short stick around for so long?