Agile isn’t the silver bullet you thought it was

 Deepa Anikhindi photo
Deepa Anikhindi Lead Product Manager
3min read

When seventeen self-professed ‘organisation anarchists’ sat down one day in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, they probably didn’t realise the extent to which their words would impact the world. A sea change in management thinking, scores of new words added to the global lexicon and widespread shunning of old methodologies – the Agile Manifesto was the early trumpet call which heralded the phenomenal rise of global tech giants.

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Quickly, organisations denounced the Waterfall methodology – a more sequential approach to managing work - for the zippier ways of Agile, which favours simplicity, self-organising teams and constant delivery. Whilst many technology focused firms have thrived implementing these practices, Waterfall management undeniably has its time and place.

The struggle comes with understanding how to optimise methodologies. Neobanks have implemented Agile on the basis of nurturing an environment that encourages fast failure, experimentation and value for customers. They've leveraged the methodology to get new features to market fast. Big banks, on the other hand, are struggling to compete. They’re looking over their younger, leaner competitors’ shoulders for the answer and only getting half of it - it’s not about which approach you go for, it’s about looking in the mirror and honestly asking: ‘what’s best for my customers and my business?'

The struggle comes with understanding how to optimise methodologies.

Time and time again I see so-called ‘Agile’ practices being executed poorly – so poorly, in fact, that organisations end up amplifying the limitations of both models. The misconstruction of Agile is dangerous and when we land in approach purgatory, innovation tends to pay the price.

A lot of this stems from a lack of understanding about what Agile means. Many will talk about scrums, stand-ups and retros, but it’s far more than that. It’s a culture that focuses on people and value – not perceived value or vanity metrics, but true delivered value.

The benefit and the challenge of Agile is that there is no instruction manual. This can lead to the blind creation of scrum teams, ceremonies and Kanban boards, whilst teams aren’t empowered to be self-organising. They’re still likely to be hindered by various organisational processes and dependencies, which means shipping is limited and change is expensive. We end up back in a world with upfront requirements and an inability to test iteratively.

The benefit and the challenge of Agile is that there is no instruction manual.

The answer? Take and step back and ask some bigger questions: ‘How might we enable faster testing?’; ‘how might we reduce the cost of change?’; ‘how might we ensure we deliver more value and appreciate simplicity?’. Agile is an enabler for change, not a silver bullet.

My unfiltered opinion

Too many organisations these days are hung up on Agile, when the real problem isn’t about which approach you adopt - it’s about how your company manages change. Misguided attempts to move with the times and be seen as Agile are only doomed to stifle innovation.

Holding up a mirror and really questioning how effective your organisation is at implementing change can be sobering. However, asking the tough questions and then - and only then - implementing a methodology is the only way to ensure success.

If we look at the state of organisations today (especially across financial services), it’s a winner takes all situation and my money is on those who dare to delve under the hood and truly understand what they want to achieve before launching into the ‘how’. Instead of copying your neighbour’s exam answer, you’ve got to fully read the question and write your own.