What are the benefits of agility? Many managers ask this legitimate question when they feel that yesterday’s methods are too slow and cumbersome today and hope to find a remedy in agile practices. After all, the title of a standard work on Scrum promises that it can get done twice the work in half the time (Sutherland, 2019). Which manager can say no to that? But can the promised benefits of agility be shortened to speed and efficiency in such a way?
It depends. There are indeed aspects that are accelerated by agile — learning, for example. Through an empirical approach, the team understands what works well and what works not so well by trial and error. In contrast to an analytical and plan-driven approach, testing happens much earlier and more frequently in real life and with real customers. Thus learning occurs much faster and more often, and necessary course corrections are taken earlier with fewer costs at stake. Agile, therefore primarily means nimble and not fast or efficient.
There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.Peter Drucker (Drucker, 1963)
In agile methods, learning is not limited to the product and its acceptance by customers but also means a continuous improvement of cooperation in the best tradition of lean management. “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly,” is therefore stated in the principles behind the Manifesto for Agile Software Development from 2001. It should be noted that here, too — and certainly not by mistake — the term “more effective” is used rather than “more efficient.” Nimbleness as the core of agile aims at effectiveness: doing the right things instead of simply pushing more work through the system with higher pressure.
If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.Steven R. Covey (Covey, 2004, S. 98)
Agility primarily ensures that the ladder always leans against the right wall before starting to paint, even and especially when this wall turns out to be a “moving target.” This effectiveness accelerates the product development process end-to-end, especially in complex environments, because there will be less waste caused by late surprises and rework. The people involved don’t just discover after painting that the ladder was, unfortunately, leaning against the wrong wall after all, but check this at an early stage through feedback from the house owner.
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (Rev. ed.). Free Press.
Drucker, P. F. (1963). Managing for Business Effectiveness. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1963/05/managing-for-business-effectiveness
Sutherland, J. (2019). Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time. rh Random House Business.