Six recommendations for implementing Agile ways of working

17 April 2018 9 min. read

Adopting and embedding Agile ways of working is easier said than done, according to research on the maturity of the application and success of the methodology across European organsiations. Leveraging best practices can smooth the agile implementation journey, however, with six recommendations in particular making for an optimal roll-out and ensuring that the change sticks.

First discussed in depth in the 1970s by American computer scientist William Royce, Agile is a project management methodology that uses short development cycles called “sprints” to focus on continuously improving the development of a product or service. Although it was originally designed for the software industry, many industries now use Agile when developing products and services, thanks to its highly collaborative and efficient nature.

Agile adaptation to significant changes in business environments, including increased competition and digital disruption, can give companies an edge or even enable their survival in crowded markets. Over the past two decades, the Agile methodology has therefore been used to transform development processes across multiple industries, with companies utilising the technique to ramp up their products’ success rates, decrease their time to market and enhance the motivation and productivity of their teams. Despite the importance of Agility, nearly half of all firms still only find themselves in the experimental phase of Agile work.

The thin majority of firms which are already implementing Agile, however, often fail to realise the true potential of the methodology, and the return of investment on Agile programmes in many cases still remains relatively low. One main reason for this is that the use of Agile practices is often new to employees, meaning that maturity is low. In addition, managers and teams struggle with embedding the approach and in particular with scaling-up from small teams to broaden their adoption of the method. In discussion with, Kelly Morales and Marjan van de Wetering, an Agile expert now playing her trade at management consultancy The Next Organization, provides six recommendations on how Agile methods can be implemented, along with a number of tips how to overcome barriers facing Agile adoption.

Six recommendations for implementing Agile ways of working

Start by learning what Agile is, and how it works

According to the experts, because Agile is a completely different approach than the sequential waterfall development with which many managers and business executives are acquainted, getting to grips with the concept before executing it is essential. The more traditional waterfall approach takes on an A to B construction-line methodology, with requirements and execution plans being created in the beginning of a project before being passed sequentially from function to function. While the approach has been used as a tried and tested development method for decades by market incumbents, it has become moribund in a rapid and unpredictable global market.

Morales and Van de Wetering explained, “Looking for a more flexible approach to product development in the IT industry, a group of software developers proposed new principles to guide the software development process. The “Agile Manifesto” is the backbone of different agile techniques such as scrum, lean development, or Kanban.”

Pick the right methodologies

As a project management methodology, Agile is highly interactive, allowing for rapid adjustments throughout a project. It also offers repeatable processes, reduces risk, allows for immediate feedback, provides fast turnaround and reduces complexity. It is not a uniform practice, however, and within the methodology are a number of frameworks which are appropriate for certain kinds of business and/or projects.

Selecting an appropriate Agile framework can be key to its successful implementation as a tactic. The experts elaborated, “There are many methods that support Agile working. Scrum is the most used Agile method. It consists of empowering a small and cross-functional team to solve a problem or achieve a goal. But there are also other methods: Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), the hybrid form between Waterfall and Agile or even the Large Scale Scrum (LeSS).”

Start small and move up

While ideally the entire organisation will eventually work in an Agile way, adapting an organisation which is used to sequential development will require a significant effort, and patience. Changing the entire company overnight is impossible for this reason, so it is recommended that instead, companies begin by incorporating Agile in individual departments. The specialists suggest that many organisations start by incorporating Agile within the IT department, which is usually more familiar with the principles, before working outward, extending to other departments, in which the original practitioners in the IT department can then act as coaches.

She added, “Agile methods may be less valuable for routine operations like plant maintenance, accountancy or sales calls. However, it is important that the way of working is spread throughout all departments so that they do not run counter to Agile principles and hinder success. Agile can be of significant value for departments close to new product development, such as marketing, supply-chain, strategic-planning, and resource allocation.”

There are many methods that support Agile – picking the right methodology is key

Leverage agile at the corporate level

“Executive roles could also benefit from working in Agile teams,” Morales and Van de Wetering said, “By working agile, managers and leaders can learn from other disciples and people by working on cross-functional teams; get to know their customers first-hand by participating in customer sessions, and learn about common challenges the organisation is facing and the way to overcome them.”

According to the consultant, tactical management tasks can also be enriched by an Agile approach. Senior executives should pay close attention to a business’ most critical issues and try to eliminate the less value-adding activities such as unnecessary reports. By coming together as an Agile team and prioritising management activities, they can accelerate their decision-making process with stand-up meetings that consider the deliveries of the other scrum teams. “In this way, their activities can become clearer to the rest of the organisation, as executives can share their progress on common boards visible to everybody,” she said.


An important factor in team success in any aspect of a business is clarity regarding roles and responsibilities, and the right balance of authority and accountability. Despite the collaborative nature of Agile, this is still the case. While teams must be nimble and the individual members comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation, leadership is still important. Leaders must be capable of identifying and emphasising best practices to staff during the transition to Agile working. This is not to say that leaders should revert to a top down hierarchy, and the experts stated that they should avoid giving orders.

“Instead, Agile is most suited by a bottom-up approach, which advocates autonomy and self-organising teams,” she added. “These simple actions can help teams to work together towards goals and challenges, instead of performing imposed tasks. Give them room to innovate and to be creative. Appoint a single owner for initiatives, but make clear that the team is responsible for the end result.”

Focus on ‘soft side’ of change

Finally, Agile ultimately requires organisational change. As mentioned earlier, this is best delivered via individual departments, rather than an overnight company-wide shift, so there will be some adjustment time necessary. In this case, it is essential to help team members to simultaneously collaborate with other disciplines.

Van de Wetering said, “The first step is to get everyone on the same page. Management should see the big picture and make sure that all departments and teams understand the organisation’s priorities. It is also important to focus on building and empowering cross-functional teams. This does not necessarily require a new organisational structure, mainly learning to collaborate simultaneously with other disciplines and business units.”

On top of this, she added that an emphasis on team motivation and commitment is central to success. Listening to what teams are saying and unveiling barriers that are keeping them from working more effectively can enhance morale, as well as preparing staff for a less-hierarchical Agile future, where their comfort while making input will be essential.

Concluding, the two experts said, “Make use of Agile coaches that can help teams rethink and change the way they go about the challenges they face. Focus more on teams and less on individuals, and design your reward system in such a way that it recompenses team’s outcomes more than individual work. Weigh business outcome (such as customer satisfaction and team happiness) higher than team utilisation (how busy people are).”