Agile is Collaboration Codified

Agile Methodology is an iterative process for making things like software (or even designing and building tiny houses).


Back in 2000, I led digital product design for a brand new commercial banking portal. Agile Methodology was born in the Spring of 2000 when 17 developers in Oregon came together to discuss how they could deliver software faster. Their goal was to speed up customer feedback cycles to improve their digital products in shorter cycles.

When I heard about The Agile Manifesto I looked at our own processes and discovered we were already benefitting from many similar practices – at least in the part of the process that I took part in. We didn’t call it agile, we called it collaboration.

We were already working iteratively and collaboratively with multidisciplinary teams. We were leveraging everything we knew about our customers so we could empathize with them and understand their needs and challenges. We tested our designs with users to ensure our work would be successful. We listened to our customer’s continued feedback to improve what we had delivered.

We didn’t find ourselves in this situation by accident. The group’s leader (a genius) had the support of the company’s senior leaders, and ample funding. A protected bubble had been created inside this giant bureaucratic organization – like an internet startup inside a mammoth corporation.

We even had an office outside the normal corporate sphere that occupied three floors in a South of Market building in San Francisco. We had a pool room, a stocked kitchen, lots of bean bags, and a dress code that fully embraced Birkenstocks, jeans, and t-shirts. It wasn’t the furnishings that made it work, it was the permission to innovate. I felt very much at home.

This wasn’t an early agile transformation, because it didn’t transform the company. It simply inserted a collaborative environment protected by leadership into empowering a team to build something amazing long before the competition could deliver.

20 Years of Observation in a Nutshell

In the time since I lived in that bubble, I’ve watched the very same company attempt to become more agile and innovative with various levels of success. Some groups find their way easily, others go kicking and fighting – which is totally normal and expected.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Agile is just collaboration codified. For collaboration to work, there has to be a supportive environment. If people are too focused on protecting their territory, controlling the process, making estimates, covering their butts, or playing the blame game… they will fail.

In these cases, the agile transformation simply becomes an implementation of a methodology without the expected results. The methodology will take the blame and the group will fall back into old slow patterns. You will be stuck in the past.

The Secret Sauce

You can’t expect that adopting a new trendy process will fix your cultural problems and make people more collaborative. People collaborate when they are protected from political games and power struggles. In other words, with the right leadership, you’ll succeed.

Collaboration, sharing responsibility, and feeling ownership, are the keys to making an Agile Transformation work because at the end of the day it’s not which framework you pick, it’s the cohesive team of people you build and empower that makes it work.

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