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“Agile,” Iterative, Its Difference, and the Future
Agile methods have been around for years. The concept first gained sway in the software industry with 2001’s “Agile Manifesto.” In it, they advocate for a customer-centric approach with an iterative processing cycle. This completely abandons older, sequential production methods often dubbed the ‘waterfall’ model. The Agile Manifesto’s author’s rationale for ditching the old for the new? An iterative approach and processing cycle is both better for output and more cost efficient. Plenty of data is backing up those assertions. Careful, though. Accessing such research costs a pretty penny.
The Internet, Change, and Responsiveness
The internet mandated enterprises’ biggest adjustment in half a century. Media campaigns must generate and launch faster. Products must release sooner or risk redundancy. Why? New expectations and, thereby, greater competitiveness from enterprises embracing this trend. Customer engagement has always demanded novelty and relevance. Now, though, there is additional pressure for customer engagement.
Social media is a game changer. Customers are more responsive than ever before. Cold, hard tallies of views and other visitor input literally displays next to each post. More significant, visitors and website users are generating content far quicker than traditional development. The YouTube-splosion is a case and point.
There’s a competitive factor to user-generated content. A viable stream for revenue and exposure, enterprises have no recourse but to attempt merging with this trend. To ignore it, as many enterprises learned in the 2000’s and 2010’s, is to surrender ground to competitors and upstarts. Not only far cheaper to produce, social media content has one prime characteristic: responsiveness.
Near all cottage sites foster visitor feedback. Think web spaces like The Oatmeal. Comments and fan pics showcase popularity. And so do site visitations. The biggest value of user boards? Interaction and inclusion. By now every potato chip brand and their mom has a Twitter, a Facebook, etc. With this engagement comes input. Put simply, think of each online media campaign as a giant focus group.
Social Media is Naturally Agile
Agile methods emphasize the very inclusion we see in social media. This makes sense. Facebook and its ilk are an outcrop of software, after all. Its popularity is organic. Of course, users receive plenty of encouragement from the platforms themselves. The primary incentive for each platform’s users, though, is to share and communicate. Monetization is secondary for most users.
And what monetization is possible! Bloggers and video bloggers merely need to view each post’s comment section for ideas and feedback. Engaging with input encourages more feedback, shares, etc. Logic goes that output changes with input. The smartest small shops find mutual affinity with their markets and change, on the fly, according to demand. Larger enterprises are learning from their example.
Change according to input is not always ‘agile.’ Traditional ‘waterfall’ production tracts also change according to input -but the versioning is less reactive, less moment-to-moment, and often depends on careful selection of focus groups. Social media, if anything, is a holistic realization of the “Agile Manifesto.” It completely facilitates what software developers depend upon: on-the-fly, unmoderated user commentary.
Adaptation of ‘Agile’ Within Larger Enterprises
People used to toss around the term “digital economy.” This misnomer creates an artificial divide. There is no barrier between the digital and tangible economies. Online platforms themselves may over-evaluate their trading potential on the open market, sure. But that not negate the impact for users, advertisers, and marketers. For instance, online ad campaigns directly effect brick-and-mortar stores as much as they entrench the brand of those store’s suppliers.
From marketing to product development, enterprises are adjusting to these new standards of engagement and output. They must. ‘Agile’ software development, and resultant customer interaction, is what led to present expectations for products and marketing outreach. Logic follows that adopting ‘agile’ methods allows enterprises to retain or reclaim their prominence. Before fully stepping into an agile framework, however, these same enterprises must abandon older production methods.
The Past: Sequential Methods and Strict Development Tracts
As mentioned, before iterative there was sequential. Often called ‘waterfall‘ processes, these traditional production tracts emphasize a narrow R&D tract. All qualitative research is up front. All development must adhere to strict guidelines.
Not only does the method overburden developers, it stifles creativity. Qualitative research was, until recently, too slow to keep pace with modern development. The resultant over-reliance on quantitative research leads to one of two options.
- Look to precedence and reception
- Design and develop blindly
Neither are ideal for creating dynamic content. Put simply, sequential output with upfront qualitative research lacks the responsiveness that social media users, and therefore prospective customers, expect. However, there is a world of difference between facilitating a business-to-customer input loop and facilitating the equivalent in a business-to-business environment. Or is there?
So sequential methods are redundant. Why the mass shift towards iterative methods? Relevancy. That and the upper corporate tier’s ambivalence towards new concepts. ‘Agile’ methods are young, but they are also 15 years old. That is 15 years of performance and precedence.
Funny enough, the overriding logic is “if it works for software it will work for us.” Near all customers are inveterate social media users. Even those without profiles are part of its trajectory. The stories on news sites, and their style, come directly from social media reception.
Enterprises going ‘agile’ are, in fact, making a statement. They are declaring that customer opinion matters to them. Further, they are putting themselves on the same tier as software. To enterprises, at least, being ‘agile’ is as much about identity as it is output.
Only thing is that agile development is geared for software. Check out this chart. Quite the assortment of mentalities and methodologies. Which do enterprises specifically mean when going ‘agile?’ Even more specifically, how are they restructuring? Agile methods emphasize a lateral hierarchy, ad-hoc roles, and other tidbits that clash with normative corporate organization.
So are Enterprises Actually Becoming ‘Agile?’
Yes and no. Each enterprise phasing into ‘agile’ methods are doing it differently. There is no other option. Business infrastructure always adjusts to unique circumstances, positioning, etc. Restructuring into an ‘agile’ method takes on many forms.
- Team-by-team: Agile structuring is team by team. This shakes up how they create but precludes managers, who retain the traditional authority/role.
- Strata-by-strata: Stratas of teams become agile, encouraging greater cohesion between them. Managers still remain distant and authoritative.
- Departmental: An entire department undergoes agile structuring. Managers become more active in projects and may also contribute towards periphery tasks or roles
- Sectional: Departments that closely align undergo agile restructuring. For example, Research and Development. Managers of said departments become more active in projects.
- Total: The entire organization undergoes agile restructuring. Traditional hierarchical silos completely disappear. Managers both work in executive teams and oversee subordinates. Everyone has a more hands-on approach with projects.
Obviously, there are different approaches and standards. Incongruences are the major hurdle. Agile methods are best when cohesive. They elasticize hierarchy and encourage supplementary participation. Does the CEO have a mind for design? In an agile system the executives both oversee and contribute work, no matter title or designation.
This lateral structuring, for most current enterprises, is incompatible at best and a hazard at worst. Merging agile methods with generic siloes contains the effect. Primarily, it frustrates diffusion. Agile methods require spontaneous discourse. Limiting who can talk with whom stifles how managers can provide support.
Realistically, of course, some levels of clearance are necessary. Most R&D teams work on proprietary stuff. Internal barriers need to realign, not disappear entirely. Agile methods emphasize collaboration between all relevant teams and departments. Ideally, team members can talk with everyone within this overlap. The overlap itself, meanwhile, is also a land of NDAs and feigning obliviousness.
Mentality: The Biggest Barrier to Change
There’s causation. What makes a product successful? Then there’s motivation. Why do we want this product to be successful? It’s no secret that profit is the root motivator of the old school. These investors also form the vast majority of all interests active in companies’ decision-making. Risk and reward: these are the things that matter to periphery elements.
Of course, the greatest reward comes with a commercial hit. These are always applicable to the market. Sometimes such hits are a surprise to everyone. Unexpected successes are only a result of oversight. If the product succeeds then the market demand was unclear, not non-existent.
Customers changing their loyalty, brand recognition shifts, etc: these are the effects of a good product. Yes, loyalty and recognition is foundational for expansion. However, they only result from products that customers find apt, be it content or a tangible object.
Eliminating the profit-first mentality, of course, is the first hurdle.
Agile Mentalities View Profit as an Effect
Profit is imperative for near any organization. Even non-profits require some income to remain sustainable. This immediate reality is all important. Agile methods cannot ignore or discount it. The books are important as they ever were.
Solvency takes a different path. Organizations using sequential processes almost always constrain development. There is no other guarantor profit. Agile organizations unleash development to do the same. As always, the main question is priorities.
Agile organizations set incremental goals for good reason. Budgets can be more dynamic. Spending depends on discovery. The days of developing blind, typically with huge budgets, is ending. Collecting customer opinions is too easy. Implementing their feedback only requires a few additional steps.
Such guidance is integral for smart resource allocation. That includes development, research, and marketing efforts. In fact, this is far more cost effective than blind development coupled with traditional research.
Therein lies the appeal of agile methods: results. That the language itself is more pleasant does not hurt. Value and intent change while the bottom line benefits. At least, this is the ideal result.
Difference between Iterative Processes and Agile Methods
The more marketing hype, the more practices become indistinct. While well defined, agile methods are also still emergent. New definitions, ideas, and subsections constantly develop. Most of these theories are outcrops from the startup industry. With appropriation comes inspiration. Multi-nats who are going agile are also new contributors to the field.
Distinguishing agile theory from iterative processing is crucial. Agile methods will forever rely on iterative processing. Not all iterative processing is agile, though. If not evident, let me spell it out:
- Agile methods are…methods
- Iterative processes are…processes
Agile methods prioritize a lot of new values. Reactiveness and dynamism, for one. Customer-centric design, freeform dialogue, and modest goals also come to mind. Iterative processing enables such an approach. It does not exclusively define it, however.
The Trap of Terminology
A few questions spring to mind when enterprises phase into agile processing. What restructuring is taking place? Are teams of developers suddenly “scrum?” And if so, what exactly do they accomplish each “sprint?” Jumbling terminology is a far cry from adhering to agile methods. This is also among the first traps when transitioning.
It does not matter if we call team members “scrum,” “employees,” or “cogs.” What does matter is how they work together. Is dialogue more free form? How strict are roles? Who can they talk with? What focus is put on customer demand? This is what matters, not empty designations or titles.
Iterative W/O Agile: A Potential Compromise
Organizations must adjust to their processing to accommodate 21st-century markets. Agile methods may seem a convenient theory to replicate. There are also too many disparities between what companies require and what agile offers. Adjustments are natural.
All workers know fitting into the corporate niche requires some work. The same is true for ‘agile’ components. Some departments do not need to readjust. Accounting is probably the biggest example. Yes, they need to accommodate agile or iterative frameworks. However, their work still functions on standard timelines, be those weekly, monthly, etc.
Accessibility is the cornerstone of usability. Traditional corporate silos need to rectify themselves with the reality of current markets…but that does not mean relying on a production model specific to software.
The greatest step to understanding agile methods are differentiating them. Current markets demand an iterative approach. Similarly, they demand inclusion. How enterprises build upon these demands is up to them.
It seems evident that iterative processing is a new requirement. Enterprises must react quicker. They must include more voices. The framework itself may or may not depend on agility. It will most definitely require a more iterative approach.
Trying to go ‘Agile?’ Start by Integrating B2B Services or Products
The mismatches between iterative and sequential modes are becoming more and more of a strain when developing for enterprises. Software suppliers, marketing agencies, and other organizations in the business-to-business arena that already went ‘agile’ are constantly mismatching with their clients. Sometimes input is too slow or vague. Other times they are only working a single rep or delegation that is miscommunicating the client’s needs or concerns. Such misunderstandings are often a result of client-side departments or executives having to jump through too many communication hurdles to properly express their needs.
The Future: User Inc.
Agile methods were around before Web 2.0. There is little doubt social media has an intrinsic effect on marketing and consumption. Mentioning sites like Groupon is almost redundant. Near all promotions tie rewards with social engagement. Promotions covet emails and social media profiles most of all.
Dissemination is just the beginning of social media’s importance. It is also a traceable continuation of consumer demands, wants, and identity. Social media updates daily. Enterprises must do the same if they hope to engage customers.
But what does this mean for the near future? Customers are already participating. Every comment, or talley, is a sign of engagement. Enterprises have two options. Either be overwhelmed or adjust with its flow. Corporations are engaging each other in advertisements more frequently. Further, they are incorporating user bases. Freecreditreport.com is a particular, and early, standout.
Facilitate Participation, Profit
What does this tell us? Consumers want to participate. More intrinsically, it shows that there is more profit in such inclusion. Also of importance? Customers increasingly expect it. Enterprises not only have the example, they have the competitive incentive. If they don’t engage their customers then someone else will. Cracked.com’s mass user-base is probably the best example.
Agile methods include user input. Such contributions never go beyond ideas. Perhaps the biggest crossover will happen when customers begin contributing content. I’m not talking sweepstakes, either. I mean actually participating in content creation. Software is a that big of an equalizer.
Such engagement is already underway. Whenever customers reference a brand they are creating a new stream of conversation focusing on it. Is it so farsighted to see their greater participation? The next step in marketing may be inclusion on an unforeseen level. This is the natural extension of iterative processes and agile methods. If it will lead to products of superior craft remains to be seen.