The Future of Agile Is Digital

Agile software development is no longer about a better way to develop software. Agile is about changing the way digital technologies, products, and services are created to take advantage of enhanced CPU power and the tools that power has made possible. Here's how digitalization is reshaping agile teams, projects, and the very definition of success.

Agile is not alone in changing the technology-business landscape. There is another force at work: digital. Agile is both the product of the same forces that are driving digital and itself a major force in the digitization of twenty-first-century business.

Consider this: The next iteration of Moore's law will deliver computing power equivalent to all the previous iterations put together. The past fifty years of exponentially growing computer processing power have made possible the desktop computer, ubiquitous mobile data communications, semi-autonomous cars, and astounding artificial intelligence. The next iteration potentially delivers all that power in one go.

Raw computing power is no longer an issue, so the problem today is how to use that unlimited computing power. The massive increase in computing power, as well as the tools this power makes possible, drives both agile and digital innovation. Modern technology is an enabler for agile, and digital business demands agile approaches. Without agile, digital businesses are little more than legacy businesses with computers.

What Makes a Digital Business

But using modern computing power to accelerate business and delivery more cost effectively doesn’t make an organization a digital business. Being digital requires a change in the way businesses think about exploiting that power: finding new ways of doing business, then using those new business models to disrupt existing businesses. Being digital also requires deliberate customer focus and responding to customers because digital businesses must deliver quality products and services on short time scales.

Being digital requires an agile mindset—or at least a mindset that looks very similar to an agile mindset.

In a rapidly changing digital business environment, would anyone seriously propose a product development process that took months to deliver? A process that required the business representatives to write down everything they wanted the product to do, wait weeks for product design then months for implementation, more months for testing, and a final indeterminate wait for signoff and deployment?

Digital technologies have made agile possible, but agile itself shapes digital business. In this digital age, companies and customers expect a level of responsiveness that old styles of corporate IT and waterfall approaches just do not provide. Agile itself shapes those expectations. Early adopters demonstrated responsive ways of working that delivered business advantages, and this forced competitors to catch up or close.

Digital also means business leaders need to think differently and management paradigms need to evolve. Agile is part of that movement, not because the old way was inferior, but because technology change allows innovation in process, and maximizing the benefits of technology requires new ways of working.

Agile adoption will continue to spread far beyond its software roots because as business digitize, more and more businesses look like software development teams. That doesn't mean accountants will start coding JavaScript—although some will—but as machines do more of the traditional work, the remaining work looks more like programming.

Digital Is Reshaping Agile Teams

Programmers have always been early adopters of digital tools—email, wikis, instant messaging—and these tools have shaped development work. As more nonprogrammers adopt these tools. nonprogramming work will look more like programming work.

Programming and nonprogramming teams need to shrink delivery cycles and feedback loops further if they are to maintain a competitive advantage. Teams and company leaders also need to reconsider their operating paradigms for the digital age.

For example, the continuous delivery movement has already shrunk delivery cycles by an order of magnitude. Commercially exploiting such advances and accelerating further requires new management thinking.

Gaps between technology and business teams are prime candidates for shrinking. Combined teams of technologists who understand business and business people who embrace technology can shrink feedback and delivery cycles. But tightening cycles further means there is no time to break up a team, let alone form a new one. There isn't time for forming, storming, and norming, there is only performing, so keep the team together and flow the work to the team.

In the digital age, the new mantra is The business is technology and technology is the business. And because technology improvements are ongoing, the business needs to structure itself for continuing advances. Halting technology change halts business growth and opens the door to competitors.

Leaders also need to think about the team, not the individual. Moving people between teams should be the exception, not the norm. Of course people will leave of their own accord and new people will join. Occasional change is natural—and good—but there isn't time for wholesale team breakup and the formation of new teams. Leaders have better things to do than regularly debate who's on which team.

Digital Focuses on the Long Term

Another major difference is that there are no projects. The project model assumes someone knows the needed work in advance, and an end date is forecast or imposed. In the digital age, value-seeking teams are constantly finding new, valuable work as they progress. Advances in computing power means our machines are capable of tackling more complex problems at the end of a project than at the start.

Starting something new is no longer a case of starting a project that will one day be completed. Instead, starting something new is akin to launching a new product, service, or even business. The hope is that the new business line will produce returns long into the future. Agile hypothesis-driven business development is more effective than exhaustive research. In the age of corporate IT, a project was something that happened elsewhere, undertaken by other people. In the digital age, it isn't other people, it isn't someplace else, and success doesn't end.

Successful teams and business lines should grow, but failures need weeding out. That means managers need a new model of governance. Most common models of governance and portfolio management assume a project model, but governance of digital agile teams needs to use value-delivered criteria rather than delivery against a plan or a percentage complete.

A New Definition of Success

In the digital age, success doesn’t mean delivering on schedule, within budget, and with all the things promised twelve months ago. It’s now delivering business benefit: customers, revenue, learning, and improved service. Right now the question is, which idea has the greatest promise? And what is the quickest way to recognize that value?

Agile software development is no longer about a better way to develop software. Agile is about changing the way digital technologies, products, and services are created to take advantage of enhanced CPU power and the tools that power has made possible.

User Comments

Clifford Berg's picture

Indeed, an increasing percentage of businesses today can be considered to be "digital" businesses, meaning that their business is based on a digital platform. Even many traditional non-digital businesses are becoming digital: e.g., automotive companies are finding that moe and more, their margin is made by the data they collect from telematics, from consumer behavior, from the additional services they sell when you buy a car - many of which are digital. Retail companies are becoming increasingly digital to compete with Amazon, and so on.

Even though Agile was born of a technology focus - eXtreme Programming was as much about test automation and sharing on wikis as it was about cadence - somehow big companies adopted a non-digital version of Agile (Scrum), which emphasised the "human side" but not the automation. It did not work well - it is hard to meet a 2-week Agile cadence without automation. DevOps was born (apart from Agile) to solve the problem, and indeed to meet today's expectations one must use heavy automation; and for a digital platform company, it is a corporate life or death matter.

November 3, 2018 - 7:19am
Komal Lopez's picture

Hi Allan,

Very well-written! The digital transformation wave is sweeping over every industry, and is driving the Industry 4.0 revolution. With everything going down the digital path, how can Agile stay back and survive? As important it is for agile to go digital, so is for digital to go agile.

You might like to check out this blog that I read on this..

May 3, 2019 - 6:08am

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.