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Agile Can Keep Your Company From Talking Itself To Death

Your comfort zone may be cozy, but it's a coffin. Unless you want your enterprise to get buried, it's time to get agile.

26Jul

Talk is cheap. We learned that as kids. Nobody remembers the guy who vowed he could handle the high dive (he'd show us tomorrow, he swore); we all remember the girl who actually leapt from it — fear-stricken face, Pokémon swimwear, and all.

Now we're in the corporate world, but 'that guy' is still around. He's got plenty of PowerPoint decks, and he seems to be the only one who knows what 'UTTR' stands for. Yet he's still afraid to jump. When he opens his mouth, we look at one another and whisper, 'Here he goes again.'

Fight Your Fears

I get it. Nobody wants to bellyflop in front of his friends. It's human to fear failure.

When my co-founder and I first started Philosophie, I was afraid to talk pricing until late in the sales process. Despite coaching from mentors, it wasn't until I moved to the cutthroat metropolis of New York City that I realized that by dancing around the cost conversation, I was holding my business back.

But fear can choke a business from practically any angle. For me, it was sales. For others, it's business strategy or product development. 

When it's happening, you know it, too. As I said earlier, I continued to avoid the cost conversation well past my mentors' warnings. Among respondents to the 11th Annual State of Agile Report, 98% have realized success from agile projects. They've seen it work. But 60 percent of those same respondents said their organizations are failing to practice agile. 

Failure is scary. Change is scary. But avoidance is downright dangerous. Remember when Blockbuster's CEO told the world in 2008 that neither Redbox nor Netflix were on his radar? Just two years later, Blockbuster went bankrupt.

To Survive, Get Agile

Your comfort zone may be cozy, but it's a coffin. Unless you want your enterprise to get buried, it's time to get agile.

Start by trashing the 'visionary' PowerPoint decks. No VC would write a check based on one, so why would your CEO? Steve Jobs famously proclaimed: 'To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.'

If you've got an idea, Jobs would tell you to get building. A tangible prototype, no matter how basic, kicks a PowerPoint presentation's ass every time. While it's not a silver bullet, bringing a prototyped product to the table drastically increases your chances of getting buy-in.

Admittedly, adopting agile at the enterprise level is easier said than done. (Talk is cheap, right?) Start by making the 'Manifesto for Agile Software Development' your bible. You simply can't squeeze agile processes into old-school waterfall operations. Trust me — I've seen it tried many times, and it never works.

Secondly, learn to celebrate the little things. Did your designer build one hell of a wireframe? Shout it from the rooftops. You wouldn't believe the morale-boosting benefits of recognizing small wins. It's easy to keep them to yourself, or at least within your department, but agile teams share achievements and setbacks together. 

Lastly — and this is tough — cut down your team. Ask yourself, 'Do I really need every employee in order to succeed?' If you've seen 'American Ninja Warrior,' you know it's the lean athletes who usually win, not the hulked-out meatheads.

How small, exactly, should teams be? A good rule of thumb is Jeff Bezos' 'two-pizza teams' rule. If you can't feed everyone with two pies, the team is too big. Small, cross-functional teams allow for effective collaboration and faster prototyping.

Shut Up and Do

Still struggling to stop talking and start making? Philosophie is no enterprise, but we've discovered some tricks that can help large organizations transition to agile:

1. Start a SWAT team.

Your starter team should be made up of the best of the best, but even they need space to succeed. Lease a co-working space, or arrange for them to set up shop at a partner's office. At my company, we invite enterprise entrepreneurs to work from our headquarters for the duration of a project. Why? It tends to spark creativity, but more importantly, it prevents them from being pulled into time-sucking meetings.

2. Set mission objectives.

You've got your SWAT team, and you've found a place for that team to work. Next, you need to set goals and deadlines. Be sure they're aligned with the broader business, but give your makers a long leash. To work quickly, this team needs to be able to make snap decisions without wading through managerial red tape.

3. Establish checkpoints.

Your SWAT team may be autonomous, but it still needs to be held accountable. Set up monthly check-ins for your soldiers. Think of your SWAT team as a startup presenting to its board of directors. Focus on wins and outcomes, product demonstrations, and recommended next steps. Schedule more formal meetings on a quarterly basis. The team will have to make a stellar pitch — yes, this includes a working product — to secure more resources.

4. Train other teams.

Remember how agile requires sharing successes? As your A-team gets traction, encourage its members to teach other teams. You should start to see others shift from thinking to making. Don't expect an overnight change, but if you're looking to speed things up, try friendly competition. You might run an internal hackathon, for example, and crown the winners next season's SWAT team. If you're still having trouble getting agile into gear, consider an outside consultant. The State of Agile Report cites hiring a trainer as a top way to scale agile.

Looking for inspiration? Head to your local playground. Watch the kids (just don't be a creep about it). See that girl furiously practicing cartwheels, even as the other kids laugh? She's going to be a doer. Channel her. Capture her fire and use it to fuel your company's innovation.

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