From Agile Design to Agile Companies: Three Ways That Designers Can Foster Change

Our DNA has agile at its core. It’s present in the way we design and build products, and in how we deliver our services. In fact, we even adopt an agile approach in how we fundamentally operate as a company - we champion continuous improvement and frequent feedback across every team. And of course, we’re agile in the ways we work with our clients: It’s all about close collaboration, frequent communication, and being on the same page, every step of the way.

But, what if our customers aren’t already experienced in the ways of agile? Well, we can help there too. By being agile coaches as well as practitioners, our designers can drive innovation into clients’ ways of working. This need is evident as the majority of companies are not yet experts in the ways of agile: While the vast majority of respondents to the 2019 State of Agile report said they use agile in some way, 53% of organizations are still maturing their use.

Here are my top three ways that designers can play a fundamental role in fostering change through agile practices.

Close collaboration powers results

Too many design agencies adopt the waterfall approach, also known as the “blackbox” approach. This is where designer(s) produce the “final product” in one fell swoop, i.e. they don’t present it to the customer until the whole thing is completed. The lack of collaboration during the design journey often results in unsatisfied customers and a product that looks nothing like they envisioned.

Here’s where agile comes in.

Transparency and continuous feedback throughout the whole design process is foundational to the agile mindset. Working closely with clients using agile processes means giving them insights into every step of the journey and having open conversations about the direction of the product. The customer should provide comments on what needs to be included or excluded, along with a dialogue on the goals of the product and any budget or time frame constraints.

This not only minimizes the risk of finishing with unhappy customers, but it also shows them how transparency is needed to maximize the value of the results in the shortest possible time. This transparency and close collaboration should apply across the board: In design, while building and maintaining the software itself, as well as between team members, designer, and customer.

Creating successful, cutting-edge products and services

When it comes to designing robust products and services which meet the needs of users, agile is second to none. In fact, the latest results from the Standish Group Chaos Study found that projects based on agile principles have significantly higher success rates than those based on the traditional waterfall methodology - 8% of agile projects failed, compared to 21% of waterfall projects, while 42% of agile projects were deemed “successful,” compared to 26% of those conducted with the waterfall method.

However, in order for projects to reach their maximum potential, both partners need to embody the agile mindset and values. Delivering new product designs every two weeks is redundant if the client then goes on to update those designs once every six months.

When agile coaching is introduced, the work of each side - both designer and client - is in sync. Agile coaching can entail anything from facilitating effective communication and collaboration, to supporting the customer’s work in agile by educating them on the key values and pillars. Agile coaches can also play more of an assurance role by keeping teams accountable for that all-important pillar of constant progress. In return, agile coaching leads to well-designed products which unlock serious value for users and are released without delay.

And the more that the customer sees the fruits of the fast-paced and iterative nature of agile processes - and how these translate into better-designed products - the more they will actively seek out ways to become experts in agile and incorporate it into more areas of the business.

Leveraging the benefits of agile to drive mindset change

One of the main obstacles that limits the adoption of agile values is the entrenched mindset around pre-existing, hierarchical structures in many companies: 59% of companies surveyed by KPMG said that culture and performance management was the biggest challenge of shifting to agile. Organizations often struggle to concede these ideas and allow for everyone involved to become product owners. Agile means giving influence to all of those that work on a project, no matter their role. This understandably can cause concerns in structures where only those at the top have any say.

Agile coaching in these situations inherently means that the benefits are immediately visible: Tangible results are demonstrated every sprint, so it’s easy to see the heightened speed and boost to value from the get-go. With the ability to see concrete output from the outset, organizations new to agile will begin to shift their mindset. And not only this, but when companies abandon traditional hierarchies, they empower their employees, and in result, see a happier workforce and better products.

Agile may be commonplace in the software development world, but it’s gaining ground for designers too - and with good reason. By embodying agile in everything they do, designers will not only create valuable products, but can promote the spread of agile values to newfound territories too.

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