The other day I was observing a group of ants efficiently pursuing their objectives on a foraging mission in my new garden. When a barrier emerged, such as a small pool of water, they’d explore its edges, quickly huddle, seek a path around the water, communicate to the foraging troops, then move on toward the objective. When unexpected danger emerged, in this case, a curious spider, they undertook the same process. Even when a massive threat appeared in the form of a can of insecticide, those who were able seemed to undertake this same process, even though the primary objective had changed from foraging to damage control.
The common theme of the ants’ activities intrigued me. Regardless of changing conditions or objectives, the framework remained the same:
- singular purpose +
- committed action +
- effective communication +
- trust in colleagues +
- adaptation to changing conditions
If only more businesses could operate this way, I thought to myself. (Adding the additional tools of an intelligent mind.) Then it occurred to me that businesses certainly could. Many do.
I was reminded of the Agile Development Movement that began in 2001. The Movement began with a group of software developers looking to collaborate to find a better way to complete projects that provided high customer satisfaction, efficient timelines, plus better worker experience in the process. The group met for several days, eventually producing a manifesto that espoused a set of principles and values that would achieve such results. Those principles have had a profound impact on the way software is developed, at least in progressive companies. Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, Agile Development has been applied to thousands of projects. It has also spawned related initiatives to apply the Agile Principles to activities beyond software development, including business agility.
The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is based on twelve principles:
- Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- Welcome changing requirements, even in late development.
- Deliver working software frequently (weeks rather than months)
- Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
- Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
- A face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
- Working software is the primary measure of progress
- Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
- Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential
- Best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams
- Regularly, the team reflects on how to become more effective and adjusts accordingly
Of these, five, in particular, translate well to developing overall business agility. Let’s explore how each of these five core principles (slightly reworded as necessary to apply to general business) can be used to generate success in three core areas that every young company needs to master: building a winning team, gaining sales traction, raising capital.
Core Principle #1: Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable products or services
Agile developers are deeply concerned about customer satisfaction because many of the projects they work on are mission critical to the company or one of its major clients. Delays in production not only cost money but also delay revenues. Inefficiency or delays also make clients unhappy. The Agile solution is to create repeatable processes that can be applied to all projects, rather than reinventing the wheel for each new project.
Creating repeatable, reliable, efficient systems can benefit your company in many ways, but for our purposes consider how it could impact your fundraising efforts. Think of your potential investors as customers. Like customers, investors expect a reliable, positive experience in dealing with you and your team. Having a repeatable process for managing each investor contact will ensure that kind of experience. Obviously, at times things will proceed differently, usually due to the particular way the investor wishes to engage with you. That’s when Core Principle 2 comes into play! The point here is that developing a process for the development of investor relationships, providing access to documents, plans, your facilities, product demonstrations, moving the process from introduction to a deepening relationship, forging trust — all of this can be planned so that you maintain efficiency in a process that often becomes inefficient.
This leads to an apparent contradiction. Creating repeatable processes takes time. So while you are working on the repeatable processes, I also remind you to get out there and start pitching IMMEDIATELY. Learn as you go. Don’t wait.
Core Principle #2: Welcome changing requirements, even in late development
Nothing generally goes exactly as planned in software development, or in business. For that reason, the Agile principles stress the need for acceptance of inevitable change, coupled with a positive mindset about managing change.
I’ve spoken in this space about the need for Vision Masters to be good at making frequent, important decisions. This becomes very difficult when the mindset of the company is set on resisting changing circumstances. It’s like the proverbial ostrich putting his head in the sand. Examples where the need to embrace changing circumstances is essential abound: investors who change the terms of a proposed investment at the last minute, customers who choose to re-negotiate over a major purchase order after it has been signed, senior managers who leave the company, changing economic realities that alter fundamental financial assumptions. Expect these things to occur. Embrace them as opportunities to strengthen the resilience of your team. Investors love to see this kind of attitude because they know that changing circumstances are inevitable — how you manage them is what they want to know.
Core Principle #3: Close, daily cooperation between different business units in the company
The Agile developers realized that large software development projects inevitably involved not just the programmers, but also other business units, including sales, marketing, senior management, customer relations to name a few. For that reason, they recommend close cooperation between those units, coming from a mindset that everyone is truly part of a larger whole, with the same end goal — delivering a great product, at a profit, that makes customers happy.
As you build your own business, avoid creating silos between the different teams that make up the larger whole. Foster close communication along with a spirit of cooperation among the people involved in different units. Reward this behavior. Whether you’re engaged with fundraising, product-to-market issues, beachhead issues or other key matters, all business units are implicated in some form. If they cooperate for the benefit of the larger, common goal of success, you’ll have agility. If they don’t communicate, protect their fiefdoms or even compete against one another, you’ll be inefficient, spending far too much time on troubleshooting among managers or their personnel, rather than on the common aim.
Core Principle #4: Teams are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
The Agile developers recognized that the X’s and O’s in a software program were all developed by people. Often, this involved several teams building a part of the application or platform. Not only did each part of the overall product have to function, but each part also had to integrate into others. Teams building separate parts of an application needed to be motivated by the end goal, trusting each other across teams to provide efficient, workable integration.
Trust is integral at all levels in your company. As I’ve written so much about, nowhere is it more important than between the Vision Master and Execution Master. Sharing a common purpose can breed trust if actions consistently further that purpose. Vision Masters are responsible for enunciating that vision in plain terms that everyone can rally around. Execution Masters are responsible for grounding that vision among business units on a daily basis. Vision Masters need to trust Execution Masters to faithfully communicate the vision to the troops, often times using their own unique language or tactics. Motivation should naturally flow from team members who are challenged but given freedom of action to complete their assigned tasks — as long as they each embody the overall vision. This is part of the art that Execution Masters need to develop in working with other managers, but it all initially comes from the top — the Vision Master.
Core Principle #5: Regularly, the team reflects on how to become more effective, and adjusts accordingly
The Agile developers recognized that software involves an iterative development process. At each iteration, a review should take place, improvements considered, adjusts made. A continuous process with these elements forges a mindset of constant improvement.
The value in this last Core Principle is often acknowledged, but not followed to its conclusion. The point is not to simply have constant meetings that are mostly opportunities to complain about what’s not working. The objective is to make adjustments after considered thought on the matter at hand. Adjustment is critical, given that conditions will constantly change. Communication among team members is crucial because adjustments need the buy-in of the entire team in order to keep motivation high. Meeting too infrequently, or meeting just to complain about the problem without a methodology for resolving it then adjusting, won’t lead to the kind of agility that breeds success.
- Growth of companies involves constant, inevitable changes in circumstances
- The way your company plans for then manages change can determine success or failure
- Agile Development was designed by software engineers to bring efficiency to this process
- After decades of success in the world of software, Agile is expanding to use in business as a whole
- The core principles of Agile Development translate perfectly to organizational development
- Mastering these principles can give you an edge in team development, fundraising, sales