It’s a buzzword on a lot of business people’s lips these days: Agile.

As in, “Has your company started implementing Agile?” Or, “Have you been invited onto an Agile team yet?”

Sounds interesting, but what exactly is Agile? And why has it created so much buzz?

We recently connected with two leaders from Strategic Education, Inc., Jacqie Lind, Senior Manager of Enterprise Project Management; and Alison Bibeau, Enterprise Program Manager, to dive into this revolutionary way for teams to work together and the potential impact it can have.

Q. OK, so we are hearing the word Agile thrown around a lot. What is Agile? What exactly does it mean?

Lind: When people talk about being agile in business today, they are probably not referring to being simply nimble or flexible, but rather are referencing a formalized approach that is redefining how teams quickly, efficiently, and effectively deliver business value to customers. The concept of Agile was born in 2001 when a group of software engineers authored the Agile Manifesto. That manifesto has four guiding values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working product over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

These values are rooted in collaboration and responsiveness, allowing teams the latitude to move quickly and pivot to meet customers’ changing needs. That’s Agile.

Bibeau: Think of Agile as more of a mindset than a methodology. That mindset is all about transparency and collaboration that puts the customer at the center of everything. Agile is for teams that want to deliver products or solutions to their customers much faster and more collaboratively and be more responsive to change in real time.

Q. So how does Agile differ from other co-working or team-based strategies. Is it really that different?

Lind: The short answer is yes. It is empowering, refreshing, and fast. That said, it’s not for everybody. If you are on an Agile team, you need to be comfortable working very quickly and in new and different ways. It can fundamentally take you away from your normal routine. Often, it requires you to be dedicated to this work, even physically relocating to be with your new Agile team of typically 7 to 9 people. Though that is not always possible, the more you are able to apply Agile mindset and practices, the more transparency, accountability, collaboration, and trust you will yield, along with better results.

Bibeau: Agile is far from a waterfall approach, which refers to the more traditional, command-and-control method of work management. In the waterfall approach, direction is set at the beginning of the project and is difficult to change. Everyone has a specific role and the level of real-time collaboration varies greatly. There is focus on documentation, tasks, and handoffs, which can take a long time to get into the hands of the customer for feedback. By the time you finish the project or develop the solution, often the original issue you were working toward could have changed. Agile helps solve for that.  

Agile teams thrive on delivering early and often, continuous improvement, and focusing on the highest value work first. They don’t try to boil the ocean. They take bite-sized problems and zero in to solve them quickly and collaboratively; then they move on to the next. This is often done in just two to four weeks, called sprints.

Q. What are the benefits of Agile?

Lind: Agile can be a game-changer. It takes some getting used to, but allows teams to reimagine their work, overcome analysis paralysis, and get things done. However, sometimes it can be a challenge for leadership who might favor the false predictability of a waterfall approach. Very few things in business today are predictable. Agile allows teams to deliver more value sooner with greater customer satisfaction and less overall effort.  

Bibeau: The potential benefits of Agile are many. It allows teams to proactively rather than reactively respond to rapidly evolving priorities. It empowers teams and gives them more autonomy to get things done in new and better ways. Additionally, customers and stakeholders get visibility and input into delivered solutions.

Q. How does Agile reflect or complement online learning?

Lind: One of the fundamental tenets of Agile is the learning process or what we refer to as continuous improvement. After each delivery sprint, the team reflects on what went well and what could be improved. The team is in a constant state of learning how to deliver more effectively. Similarly, online learners are also earning their degrees in bite-sized pieces and getting feedback throughout to hone their knowledge. Most online learners are also working adults, so are likely learning and then applying that knowledge to their professions. This cycle of learning and doing with coaching along the way is very similar to Agile work.

Bibeau: In online learning, the Agile mindset is helpful to break down learning into digestible chunks to tackle and deliver. This allows students to plan what they need to focus on for each assignment and then continue to build on that knowledge. It can reduce stress and paralysis with getting started. Capella University’s FlexPath courses, for example, provide timeline tools for students to deliver on each assignment in the timeframe that works for them, after doing some planning evaluation (like sprint planning) to determine how much work is needed.

Q. Who are the right kind of people for an Agile team?

Lind: You need to be adaptable and open to a new and more collaborative way of working. You may be asked to take on responsibilities outside of your current role, so you need to be willing to do what it takes to ensure the team’s success. You also need to bring your ideas to the table as everyone in a smaller Agile team is a contributor. If you are someone who prefers traditional ways of working, Agile may not be the best fit.

Bibeau: Really, you want to start with your top performers. However, anyone who has new ideas and is highly collaborative would be a good fit. You need to be a self-starter who can take ownership and is self-motivated. If someone wants to wait to be told what to do, that person would not be a good fit for Agile.

Finally, Agile is all about the team, not the individual. You present your solutions, deliver finished products, and receive credit as a team. It brings everyone closer together.

If you want to start or further your career in technology, you may also be interested in Capella University’s Information Technology Degrees & Certificates.