What Does it Mean to be Agile?

In the business world, there is always a buzzword of the moment. Terms like proactive, wheelhouse, or disruption make their way in and out of meeting rooms and sales pitches. When overused, or incorrectly used, a buzzword can cause others to question your credibility. This recently happened to a professional acquaintance of mine, who I’ll call Deb. Her company lost a bid based on their limited knowledge of what it means to be Agile. Here is a little excerpt of our conversation:

“They wanted to see too much, too soon.”

Deb: They wanted us to show them the raw data before it was scrubbed. We would never do that. Clients wouldn’t understand what they were looking at.

Me: Agile is about letting your customer in. There isn’t a “ta-da” moment where you try to impress your customer at the end. If it was a restaurant, you would invite them into the kitchen, not restrict them to the dining room.

Deb: But if our customer sees what is happening behind the scenes, they would see when we make mistakes.

Me: That’s exactly right. In Agile, the relationship is very close and your practices are transparent. The customer will see your dirty laundry, and that’s okay. It’s part of the up-front conversation. You and your customer work as a team. If your customer uses mistakes as a ‘gotcha’ against you, either there is something wrong with the relationship or there is a lack of understanding about Agile.

“If they want changes, they have to pay for them.”

Deb: If we spend all of this time creating a database and they don’t like it then of course they will need to pay for changes.

Me: When will they be able to demo the actual product? Can you build a quick prototype for them early in the process so they can give you feedback?

Deb: Sigh. It doesn’t work like that. We build the whole thing.

Me: In that case, yes. The changes would be more expensive once the product is finished. It’s too bad you can’t show them something up front.

Deb: But we are Agile. Once we are finished if they want changes, we will make them quickly.

“We are Agile, aren’t we?”

Deb: I just don’t understand how we could have lost this bid. We said we would attend all of the meetings they wanted, and we agreed to make changes if they didn’t like the product at the end. That’s Agile, right?

Me: Based on what you described, I’m afraid it doesn’t sound like it. If you are practicing Agile project management, you will break the work into small parts that you can demonstrate to your customer early and often, and you will incorporate changes based on the feedback you receive. So, you actually have less rework in the end because you are adapting as you go. There is more to Agile, but that’s a start.

Barb Waters is the owner of Peak Business Management, a proud partner of Skillsoft, the Leader in Corporate Learning. Barb is a certified Project Manager (PMP), PMI – Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) and Business Analyst (CBAP). She provides consulting and exam preparation for various project management certifications.