Since the boom in tech, ‘Agile’ has become a buzz word that many professionals have come across. What is Agile? It’s a methodology for completing a project the delivers something to the user more frequently. Agile is used in place of another common methodology called ‘Waterfall’.

I won’t go into detail about Waterfall in this article. In short, it’s an approach for completing a project in phases where the next phase does not start until the previous one has finished. For example, the first phase might be to gather requirements for the project, then design, implement, and so forth. The drawback to this approach is that it can take a long time. There’s a chance that by the time the project is done, someone else has beat you to it. Or the requirements have changed entirely.

What is Agile?

The idea behind agile is a more iterative approach. From my experience, the real value in agile comes from constant user feedback. Rather than taking on an expensive and long project immediately, you break it down into small pieces, but each piece must bring value – often referred to as a “minimum viable product”. You deliver to the user as each of these pieces become available. Each time you deliver, it’s an opportunity to ask your customer “Is this what you want?” and “Is there something we can do better?”. You can take on the feedback and pivot as necessary – without having invested all of your time and resources on a long project yet.

A common example used to explain agile is if your user/customer requires a vehicle to get from A to B. The Waterfall approach would be to start designing a car and invest all of your time and resources getting the perfect car ready for your user. By the time your car is ready, your user has already moved to someone else.

The agile method is to take this user need and say, okay – what is the purpose of this? The user needs a method of transport from A to B. What’s the minimum viable product here? Perhaps a skateboard to start. Then a scooter. Then a motorbike. Keep working on it until it’s a car. At each phase you get an opportunity to deliver something of value to your customer that is better than the last. You also get the chance to talk to your user and involve them in your decision making processes.

Applying Agile to Your Industry

These methodologies are common for software development, but the idea for agile actually originated outside of software development. So, how can you deliver something using Agile in other industries? Let’s start by examining the key principles in Agile:

  • Iterative approach in small increments
  • User feedback
  • Communication – valuing people over processes
  • Ability to pivot and adapt

The principles in agile are principles which I believe are also fundamental in a startup, or in-fact any new product. If you are starting a new business, the first and most important requirement is to ensure there is a need for what you are offering. It makes sense to do this before making a heavy investment. Get your potential customers involved early.

“The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries is a book I’d highly recommend which relates to this topic quite well. There is a great example in the book about a startup looking to setup online shopping for recipes with all necessary ingredients. Instead of investing into an expensive online site immediately, they started local. They went door to door. They spoke to people and asked them if they would like groceries delivered with recipes. There was no formal process in place. They did everything by hand and delivered the groceries and recipes on their own in the beginning.

The purpose of this was to prove that there was a need for what they were offering. While going door to door, they got an opportunity to speak with each of their clients and get feedback. In addition to proving that there is a need for their product, providing an MVP allowed them to start getting income sooner rather than later. The next phase could be to give them an online form to fill out with only a small number of options and still manage deliveries on your own.

In order to make this work, I could imagine the founders of this startup needed to be very clear in communicating and setting expectations. To their customers, and internally. The culture of the company, whether two people or five hundred people, needs to think agile. Delivering in small increments requires good and constant communication. It requires that everyone knows what they are expected to do. If you don’t have any formal processes in place, communicating well with all involved parties is essential.

Know When To Pivot

Agile provides an opportunity for something that is scary, finding out you are not fulfilling a need. When you are not seeing interest in the early stages, or you’re not making money – it’s not necessarily because you don’t have a big fancy website or some complex technology in place. If your MVP was tested and the feedback showed no interest, take this as an opportunity. You are better off pivoting now, in an early stage, and finding a true need, than to keep going. Use the people you have connected with in the early phase; what peaked their interest in your original pitch? What didn’t? Ask questions. Your pivot might be entirely different from your initial approach. But, it will come from a true need – and that is the key to success for any product, feature, or business.

What are the key takeaways here? Don’t start by aiming for perfection. Start with the minimum. Prove that there is a need for what you are offering. Get feedback as you go. Pivot when necessary.

Keep a lookout for an upcoming article on Design Thinking – which feeds well into Agile.

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