What’s Next for Agile?13 Apr 2023
Forecasting the future is always a tricky business. Nevertheless, I’ve been asked in this blog post to engage in some forecasting of my own about the future of agile.
Forecasting, however, isn’t about blind prediction. It’s about using data from previous events and recent trends to describe a likely future. With that in mind, I can sum up my forecast for agile in 2023 and beyond in a single word: expansion. Over the next few years, agile will continue to grow and expand in terms of what it means, how it is applied, and the impact it has on global organizations.
Agile, of course, had its start in the software industry. It was an attempt by teams of developers to come up with ways of working that yielded better outcomes and that, not coincidently, also made their jobs a little more enjoyable.
Over time, the principles and practices developed by these agile teams have been adopted and replicated across many other industries and fields. This was hardly coincidental. The world, since agile was first developed, has become a much more dangerous place: more global, faster-paced, and increasingly reliant on digital technologies that have radically lowered the barriers to competitive challenges. Becoming more agile is no longer a “nice-to-do;” it’s become a business imperative.
We’ve now reached a new inflection point in the steady expansion of agile. In my view, the future of agile will be defined by these four expansionary trends:
From Teams to Enterprises
The first trend is the expansion of agile beyond project teams to the enterprise itself. Teams, after all, operate within a larger enterprise environment. If that environment isn’t supportive of agile approaches, the impact of agile teams will necessarily be limited. Yes, there may be some improvement in product quality, along with certain downstream benefits, such as higher customer satisfaction. But there won’t be the substantial, order-of-magnitude business improvements necessary to fend off competitive challenges from smaller, nimbler competitors. That can only be achieved by expanding agile across the enterprise – making it central to how the business operates. And that leads to my next forecast about agile expansion.
From Outcomes to Value Streams
Expanding the scope of what agile can do involves shifting from an outcome to a value stream perspective, i.e., expanding our understanding of what needs to be done to deliver value to a customer. That can involve just about anything that happens between when you first come up with the product or service idea to when you begin generating revenues from that product or service – or, as Mary and Tom Poppendieck like to say, from concept to cash.
This more expansive view requires addressing potential waste or delays across a much wider horizon. The goal is to make the value stream as efficient as possible, and that means searching out and eliminating bottlenecks wherever they might appear. Tinkering around the edges, i.e., making changes in this process or that application, won’t help. Only improvements at the bottleneck, which come from looking across the entire value stream, will have a substantial impact on the business.
From Project to Product Management
Maintaining this broader field of vision requires a wider focal lens. It involves expanding from a project management mindset to a product management mindset. Projects tend to be short-term in nature. They have a clear beginning and end and a well-defined deliverable. A product perspective, however, involves thinking about the product or service over the long term – thinking through where you want the product or service to go and how you can get there. This calls for a more permanent team with broader responsibilities to cultivate and support the product.
From Team Leadership to Executive Leadership
This shift in perspective – from outcome to value streams, from project to product management – can’t happen without the active involvement of senior leadership. This is perhaps the most significant development I see these days. C-suite executives are increasingly buying into and driving the implementation of agile practices.
There are executives, of course, who still take a hands-off approach – who think they can just order up an off-the-shelf product and achieve business agility. But this will achieve only lackluster results, at best. For true enterprise agility, executives must develop an understanding of the principles behind agile – ideas drawn from lean and the theory of constraints. To achieve true business agility, these executives are internalizing these important principles so that as they navigate business challenges, they can make decisions that are aligned with better value delivery.
Where do you, as a project management professional, fit into this picture? Here are three thoughts for your consideration:
- Whatever work you do, wherever you do it, you need to upgrade your knowledge and skills to operate in this wider business world of value streams and value delivery. If you understand the factors that affect the flow of work through a value stream, you’ll be better positioned to know where to make improvements. There’s a growing body of knowledge on value delivery that you can consult, and, of course, PMI offers a range of resources in this area.
- Embrace collaboration with other areas of the business. Recognize that true enterprise agility isn’t achieved in isolation. It can only come by painting on a broader canvas. Even if your organization hasn’t fully adopted an enterprise-wide view, you can begin to advocate for and operate with a broader business perspective in mind.
- Ground yourself in a principles-based approach to project management. Knowing these principles and the related techniques for applying them will allow you to stay relevant and to thrive. PMI, of course, is moving all its materials – including the PMBOK® guide – to be principles-based, which will make your job a lot easier.
The continued expansion of agile across the enterprise demonstrates the power of the agile approach. As agilists, we have an important role to play in reshaping business around the globe and in addressing the challenges of a digitally transformed future. Our destiny lies not in forecasting the future, but in helping bring that future about.