Why Agile is still a headline concern twenty years on

By Chris Forde, Vice President Enterprise Architecture and General Manager Asia Pacific at The Open Group

Two decades after the publication of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, it might feel odd to be discussing Agile adoption as a live issue for organizations. Usually, articles like this are concerned with promising, emerging, unproven ideas, talking about how to stimulate the area so that it can reach the point where its value is demonstrable. Agile, by contrast, is almost venerable.

In recent times, Agile has been gaining momentum and now, companies are looking to adopt Agile more and more into business operations. Across different industries, there is scope to complete the spread of Agile – but these are not statistics which suggest that we still need to shout from the rooftops about its benefits.

Deeper agility

Look a little deeper, though, and we find that this might not simply be the culmination of a long trend, with adoption in both IT and non-IT lines of business growing together as agile becomes more widespread.

For many, the parity between those two areas might be more surprising than the speed of the increase which, as has been discussed at length this year, is a jump that we might attribute to the impact of the pandemic. That parity is also mirrored in the reasons for adopting Agile, where an IT-specific purpose (accelerating software delivery) and a non-IT reason (managing changing priorities) were identified as the joint most important factors.

All of this highlights the fact that, while almost every business might now be using Agile practices, those practices are not confined to the software development purposes that Agile was originally created for. Rather, Agile is spreading throughout organizations as a strategic priority. As it comes to operate on that scale, there will need to be some rethinking and reformulating about how we communicate and implement Agile methodologies.

Agile for all

This shift of Agile towards being a broader organizational principle, not just a development methodology, was also noted in last year’s The Open Group Digital-First event, where Société Général and Fidelity Investments discussed their experiences using Agile to improve the client experience. In both cases, what started as an IT-led initiative became an enterprise-wide transformation spanning the business.

In practice, this meant adopting new organizational models (such as teams focused on certain value chains rather than certain business functions), changing governance processes (such as flattening chains of command using spaces for candid debate), and altering assumptions about investment and return (such as developing more flexible ways to allocate resources to projects).

Managing Agile at scale

The experiences of businesses like these teach us that Agile does, indeed, have valuable applications well beyond explicitly software-development focused areas of work. With a new perspective on how they act and organize, teams spanning the breadth of an organization can operate in a more digitally-native way and make better use of digital tools.

At the same time, however, it would be a mistake to think that the solution to today’s vexing business challenges is to copy and paste the Agile culture already endemic to software development across the organization. If, at heart, Agile is about establishing teams which are self-organizing and so enjoy greater agency to take action, we have long known that it carries the risk of creating discrepancies between different teams’ approaches, leading to internal incompatibilities and therefore inflexible outcomes which hinder future change.

This problem might be informally avoided amongst a handful of software development teams, but as the situation scales up to tens or hundreds of semi-autonomous groups, formal coordination is needed to ensure that local decisions feed into positive holistic outcomes.

It’s an issue which will inherently become more known as Agile flows out beyond its IT wellspring and more different kinds of work are called on to feed into an aligned strategy. For Société Général and Fidelity Investment, along with an increasing number of other organizations, the solution was to introduce an architecture standard to make it possible to harmonize different streams of work.

The Open Group Open Agile Architecture™ (O-AA) Standard is tailored to the demands of enterprises which need to support Agile at scale, providing toolkits and frameworks to guide organizations in enabling agility across the business without creating silos or losing sight of the wider business environment.

Moving forward, the next wave of Agile headlines might be all about how enterprises are making it part of the fabric of their business, not just something practiced by individual teams.

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