Agile and the Boom/Bust Cycle

I spend a fair amount of time these days working with senior business leaders on some of the challenges they face.  One of the things that both they and I are seeing is the impact of shorter business cycles on planning.  While the use of the word “cycle” implies that these changes occur with some predictability, it is also clear from observation that they do not.  In fact, many economist choose to use the term “fluctuation” over “cycle” to denote its chaotic nature.

Many factors go into making our economy behave this way, globalization, decreasing consumer attention span, less brand affinity, increasing technology and government intervention to name a few.  The real question many leaders face as it relates to these cycles is “How long do I have to get my product or service offering to market?”  They want to understand how quickly they can take and idea to market without having the ground shift from underneath them.

When I started in the technology space in the early nineties, project lengths of many years were not uncommon.  For many companies, releasing a piece of software once a year was a challenge.  If you had hardware to go with the software (think game console, cell phones, etc.) you could pretty much kiss the once a year thing goodbye.  This was the way it was.  Consumers didn’t expect more, competitors probably couldn’t do better and our detailed design specifications were as much work as the product itself.  Over the last 20 years, this has all changed.  Consumers demand the latest and greatest, our economy is wildly unpredictable, startup competition can build products from start to finish in months and many companies are now releasing software “continually.”

Many leaders are looking at these new conditions and realizing that the ways of the past are no longer suitable.  These leaders look at their companies, consumers and competition and make thoughtful choices about where to go and what to do.  They are not surprised by changes as this is now the norm.  An example of this if Flickr which started as an online gaming company but quickly realized there was more of a demand for their photo sharing feature.  This change in direction, also known as a “pivot,” is becoming a key piece of modern business practices.  Making a significant change in the direction of an organization requires software development techniques that can readily deal with it.  Enter Agile.

Agile development is a general term for many different techniques but the piece that is common to most of them is a focus on delivering done software frequently.  In Scrum we do this every Sprint. In XP this is done every Iteration. With Continuous Delivery this is done…well continuously.  When leaders have the confidence and understanding that the product they are building is always in a done state, they can “pivot” more readily and cost-effectively.  It’s clear from the state of the market that and organization that can most readily respond to change is going to prevail.  If you are leading an organization that produces a product, have you asked yourself “How able are we to respond to change?”  An honest answer to that question will likely indicate the future success of your organization.

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