The Way We Work
November 28, 2012 by Julia Camenisch

National Public Radio (NPR) was facing an innovation challenge: In five years, they hadn't produced a single successful new show—but had spent millions on failed experiments.

As Andrew Phelps discussed on the Nieman Media Lab blog, NPR's programming staff needed a new approach. That's when a development process already being used in the IT department was re-purposed to create radio programs. That methodology? Agile software development.

"[Agile is a] philosophy that products should be released early and iterated often," explained Phelps. "The shows are live (cheap) and/or adaptations of existing shows (easy)…Listeners and local program directors are invited to help shape the sound of the programs, making it something of a public beta."

Bringing An Agile Mindset To A Different Industry

Built on several decades of academic theorizing and real-world experimentation, agile is a project management approach that's traditionally been geared towards software.

The specific principles that define the agile process were formalized in 2001 by a group of like-minded developers in the Agile Manifesto. Since that time, it has become a de facto standard for efficient, adaptable, customer-oriented web and software development.

When NPR began implementing agile, they didn't employ every aspect of it. Instead, they made use of the elements that were most relevant to developing radio programming, including:

  • iterative development (i.e. shows are changed based on listener and station feedback), and
  • embracing simplicity (i.e. using live production and basing new shows off existing shows).

As NPR's example illustrates, the principles that make agile such an effective software development tool can have extensive application to the rest of the business world as well, making non-IT teams equally adaptable and efficient.

How Agile Can Transform Your Business

Here are a few key agile hallmarks and how they can apply to your business—whatever sector you happen to be in.

Your highest priority is to satisfy your customer.

Jason Little, an agile expert and organizational change coach, helps non-IT industries successfully implement agile principles. One client was struggling to manage 12 different groups of customers. When they stopped to consider how they were interacting with their customers, however, "they immediately discovered they were over-saturating their audience with too many messages and were able to self-correct," explained Little.

One way any industry can implement the customer satisfaction principle is by actively listening to the customer throughout every stage of product development; only develop incrementally and get the customer’s sign-off at each new level. This isn't about allowing your client frequent opportunities to completely change the project, but instead making sure the work you are doing meets their expectations at every stage.

Conduct regular reflections on how to become more effective, then change accordingly.

Often called a retrospective, this agile methodology encourages teams to have regular meetings in which they talk about what worked and what didn't in the last project they accomplished. Based off that discussion, improvements are made to the team's workflow and management.

Little emphasized the importance of the retrospective in strengthening teams—and online teams in particular. "Regardless of industry or products and services being offered, getting into a rhythm of making small incremental improvements is a strong, positive habit for management teams to build," he said.

He added that when team members see their supervisors investing in improving, they'll embrace its importance for themselves.

The best products emerge from self-organizing teams.

Projects that are micromanaged rarely turn out well for anyone—a key reason behind the agile principle of self-organizing teams. Little summarized it by noting that "the people doing the work are the best suited to figuring out how to do the work."

Mary Poppendieck concurred in her book, Implementing Lean Software Development. "Respect means that instead of telling people what to do and how to do it, you develop a reflexive organization where people use their heads and figure this out for themselves."

In any industry, teams that are given ownership of their project are more creative and driven than their micromanaged counterparts. By implementing this agile principle, you'll be walking in the steps of ROWE-inspired organizations.

Daily and/or weekly meetings keep the team on track and coordinated.

Many software development teams hold daily and/or weekly “stand-up” meetings to keep each other abreast on a project's progress. These meetings, if kept short and sweet, are an incredibly valuable tool for any business. What should these focused meetings cover?

  • The state of each attendee's project work and what has been accomplished since the previous meeting;
  • What work is going to be accomplished in the next period; and
  • Any obstacles that a team member is facing.

These meetings are often referred to as "stand-ups" because, ideally, they should be short enough that everyone could stand during the meeting.

Little suggests regularly including both clients and stakeholders in at least some of these meetings. “I was working with a software team on one of those doomed projects and the simple change we made was to include the customers and stakeholders to the daily stand-ups twice a week,” he said. "Regardless of the methods and tools used to deliver the project, the flow of communication dramatically increased which helped the stakeholders realize how much work they were actually asking for and they found out about problems much sooner."

Radio isn't the only non-tech field to be inspired by agile. Marketing, freelance writing, book publishing and education are just a few of the industries being transformed by an innovative production methodology.  After all, if it works for Morning Edition, you know it's got to be good.

Do you know of other non-tech fields that are successfully using the agile approach? Has your company tried it? Share your input in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.