In the early 2000s, the first IT departments began to switch to the agile way of working. It quickly became apparent that Agile produces better work results. Today, Agile is the standard in software development (95% of organizations use it – State of Agile, 2020). It's no wonder then, that more and more organizations are asking: can Agile be used for non software projects? I'll show you when using Agile outside of software development makes sense and how that can look in practice.
Why are companies embracing the use of Agile outside of software development?
Before we get into how Agile works outside of software development, let's first take a look at why companies are opting for the Agile way of working in other departments as well. To get straight to the point: With Agile companies create a better product in less time. To do this, agile frameworks implement
- better communication within and across teams,
- regular Retrospectives to continuously improve the work being done,
- an open feedback culture, and
- a transparent and more efficient way of working.
You benefit from these advantages if the work environment is complex (see Cynefin model).
Agile then creates a structure for teams that lets them organize, evaluate and adapt work processes more easily. There is no longer just one master plan, but many small milestones that teams master. And, instead of one product manager or single executive, responsibility is shared across many shoulders throughout the team.
Using Agile outside of software development: How does it work?
As you can see: the advantages of agile for non IT projects are obvious. But how can non IT Agile work in practice? After all, Agile was developed to improve software development processes. Can Agile therefore be used for non-software projects at all?
With a few exceptions, I can answer that with a resounding "yes". However, you can't just pick a framework like Scrum and apply that as a template to your project. That alone won't work because most frameworks are designed for the processes in IT.
In order to implement Agile in other work areas, you are faced with these two options at the beginning:
- You adopt only the basics of an Agile framework and adapt the rest to the needs of the industry, the project, and the teams.
- You only decide on certain blocks of an agile framework and implement them.
It is usually difficult for organizations to successfully implement the first approach. Without comprehensive, professional support, organizations are not able to transfer the basics of an agile framework to their processes.
For practice, I therefore specifically recommend to you: start either with the agile Kanban method or with agile Retrospectives . Both approaches are a big enough step to show teams and departments the benefits of Agile – without overburdening them.
While doing so, it can be helpful not to talk about Agile officially. This protects teams from false expectations and allows them to go into the new processes without reservations and fears, in case individual employees have already had bad experiences with it.
Using Agile outside of software development: When is it not possible?
There are a few exceptions where Agile makes little or no sense outside of software development:
Projects with strict requirements
Companies that must always adhere to strict requirements, such as regulatory compliance or certifications, cannot sufficiently adapt their processes to reap the benefits of Agile. The iterative and adaptive nature of Agile approaches then doesn't translate to the way they work.
Customers with change control
If organizations work with customers who want to verify every step of the work through documentation and change control, the barrier to adopting Agile is too big. After all, the nature of Agile is to spread responsibility across many shoulders. Teams are allowed and expected to make self-determined decisions. This is hardly possible with constant control.
Which industries does this apply to?
Projects with strict requirements and customers with change control are found primarily in highly regulated industries such as aviation, healthcare, and the military. There, governance and control are supporting pillars.
You can apply some Agile concepts such as continuous improvement (i.e., retrospectives) in these industries. However, the actual benefits of Agile are significantly smaller.
Using Agile outside of software development: 3 practical examples
So that we don't approach non IT Agile only theoretically, let's take a look at 3 practical examples. They'll show you how Agile can work in non-software projects and what Agile changes in the process:
Agile outside of software development: UX design
Agile techniques in design teams help develop products that are closely connected to the needs of their users – without taking months to get to market. In doing so, Agile's iterative nature takes the pressure off arbitrary perfection and helps UX designers work more flexibly and adaptively.
To achieve this, Agile in UX design, for example, introduces the "design sprint". This involves all key stakeholders working together for 4 or 5 days to turn an initial idea into a testable product. Design sprints often lead to successful designs that go right into production.
The Quizlet added diagramming tools to its portfolio, after it had done a design sprint. Even if a design sprint doesn't produce a satisfactory result, it quickly shows which ideas and approaches don't lead to the goal. This is an indispensable insight for taking the right path – without wasting too many resources.
Pro-tip: Within the design sprint, invite the "customer" or target group a few times to get initial feedback directly.
Agile outside of software development: Marketing
Agile in marketing relies on data and analytics to continuously find potentials and solutions to problems in real time, run tests and evaluate results immediately, and iterate quickly. In practice, this means that a marketing department runs several campaigns simultaneously and develops new ideas for them every week. So unlike top-down marketing, agile marketing is not driven by lofty acquisition goals and a rigid campaign plan, but by the market.
Sleeknote, an e-commerce software provider, was able to dramatically increase its output and organic traffic through agile marketing. To do so, it worked with weekly sprints, product backlogs and Kanban boards. McKinsey estimates that companies can increase their sales by between 20 and 40 percent with agile Marketing.
Agile outside of software development: Recruiting
Agile in recruiting helps organizations attract highly skilled talent and passive job seekers and reduce employee turnover within the organization. To do this, Agile views recruiting as a product department that has a direct impact on revenue. Therefore, it must respond quickly and continuously to the market, constantly adapting to the needs of job seekers.
IBM, for example, introduced its own framework called "Agile in Talent Acquisition" (AgileTA) to implement Scrum in the HR department. Retrospectives, in particular, ensure that the work performed is evaluated and unused potential and errors are uncovered.
Can agile be used outside software development? Conclusion
Agile offers companies the opportunity to create better products faster. The use of Agile outside of software development is possible in many departments and industries. The important thing here is not to want to do everything at once. Without professional support, organizations should initially start with basic Agile elements such as retrospectives to feel the first effects of Agile in practice. Then, step by step, they can integrate other elements of a framework into their processes. In our workshop Project Scagile, we show you which 7 mistakes you should avoid at all costs during an agile transformation. Take a look, the workshops are free of charge.
Additionally I can recommend you to have a look at the tool Echometer (More on this here: The best free agile retrospective software). It is particularly well suited for teams that may just be starting out with agile frameworks.