Agile: The Right Way to Build Innovative Digital Products

Agile, both as a methodology and a mindset, can accelerate growth by increasing quality and speed to market. In addition, it can dramatically improve workflows. But what about innovation? Can agile methods foster innovation as well?

Company-wide adoption is recommended for taking full advantage of this way of building digital products. Basically, everyone from developers to the C-suite should rely on agile techniques in all of their endeavours.

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Agile Project Management Is Neither New nor Exclusive to the IT Industry

The Agile Manifesto, which formulates the principles driving this movement, was conceived in 2001, so the methodology is anything but new.

In the 15 years that have passed since then, agile methods have transcended the IT industry. Now, they’re even used by the National Public Radio for creating new programs and at John Deere for building new machines. Swedish aerospace and defense company Saab have found them useful in the production of electronic defense systems. Marketing, human resources, and warehousing are some other areas that have been influenced by agile approaches.

So what then is the common denominator of all of these apparently different industries?

The quality of the experience and the ability to engage consumers used to be enough for companies to set themselves apart from the competition. Nowadays, the key to success is to enhance experiences, processes and entire business models in order to promote innovation.

There’s no denying that correctly implemented agile methods can improve internal processes. It may seem that they stand in the way of innovation, but that’s not always true. There are several conditions that can favor agile methods and others that are adequate for the Waterfall approach, for example.

What Makes a Good Environment for Agile Innovation?

The term “agile Innovation” implies awareness, flexibility, and speed, which are only some of the characteristics businesses should possess to succeed in this day and age.

agile innovation - digital products

The first determining factor that influences whether agile methods are adequate or not is represented by customers. Ever-changing customer preferences are easier to accommodate when every side of the project can be dissected into smaller, manageable parts.

Secondly, there’s user involvement, something that’s deeply rooted in the Agile principles. By collaborating closely with the client, digital product development companies can discover their needs, or can even educate them, should these needs prove to be unrealistic. Customers that are unavailable for continuous collaboration render agile methods unusable. This results from the fact that the requirements need to be established at the beginning.

Complex projects with possibly unknown solutions represent yet another favorable condition for agile methods, especially if the scope isn’t defined clearly. As the customers’ preferences change frequently, so will the product specifications. To accommodate these changes, companies need to deploy cross-functional teams that can handle challenges as they appear.

The fact that Agile is both modular and scalable comes into play when customers demand incremental developments. Ideally, the team is capable breaking down work into small parts – issues – that can be solved rapidly in iterative cycles. By working in this manner, software development companies can also educate their clients not to request complex features as late changes, since those are time-consuming and cannot be integrated properly within the existing cycle.

Last, but not least, development teams have a lot to learn from interim mistakes when using agile methods, whereas in the Waterfall model they had catastrophic consequences since they could only be corrected at the end.

Agile Techniques Enable Customizable Development

Before venturing into the uncharted territory that’s suitable for innovation, individuals and teams need to master widely used methodologies that have proven results in companies from all over the world.

Rotating team members is a common practice in agile development, but it shouldn’t be used from the very beginning. In fact, stable teams are associated with increased productivity, predictability and responsiveness as a simple result of not spending time and resources on continuously training people for new roles.

“Unstable teams are associated with lower performance, which makes sense,” pointed out CA Technologies, one of the world’s largest independent software corporations, in their Impact of Agile. Quantified study. “If we shift the teams around, we have to train new team members. While we are ramping them up, we’re not getting work done.”

agile techniques for product development

As time goes by and each team member gets familiar with traditional techniques, the team can proceed to modifying these in ways that serve their purpose better. Once the transformed techniques are mastered too, the team has plenty of knowledge and experience to improvise on the spot, which really is a must in agile environments. It’s the “out of the box” thinking that will enable the team to build innovative products, be them digital or otherwise.

While focusing on improvisation, it’s important to keep track of the changes and the results in order to see if the whole process improves or reduces customer satisfaction, development speed, and team morale.

How and Why Did John Deere Adopt Agile Methods?

Since Spotify develops a digital product, the fact that it has run on agile from the very beginning really doesn’t surprise anyone.

Things are a bit different when we’re talking about tractor maker like John Deere, which have been a fan of these techniques since September 2010.

In a fast world, time to market is essential, but that was only one of the aspects that called for agile. To decrease that time, the first step was to help team members collaborate more closely. Curiously enough, the company didn’t use a piece of software for this part. Instead, it saw that the cubicles are replaced with U-shaped pods that encourage interaction.

Besides speed, John Deere also wanted to improve innovation, quality, customer focus and teamwork. Naturally, agile seemed to be the right solution to all of these problems. Forrester analyst Tom Grant even went as far as to compare John Deere’s adoption of agile to a “big bang.” The similarity resulted from the fact that the company started using agile methods in all of the aforementioned directions at once. This is in contrast to the step-by-step approach used by other companies, and as risky as it may be, it can guarantee great results.

“Breaking work down into smaller increments helped us with some of the quality aspects,” explained Tony Thelen, director of the Intelligent Solutions Group, which is part of the company’s IT operations. “The incremental reviews of the work allowed us to put more eyes on the software code more often.”

The results? John Deere decreased:

  • Field issue resolution time by 42%
  • Warranty expense by 50%
  • Time to production by 20%
  • Time to market by 20%

All while increasing employee engagement by 9.8%. Bear in mind that these results are from January 2012, less than a year and a half since starting using agile techniques.

It’s interesting to see how a solution initially adopted for meeting the demands of the market has taken ahold of so many aspects. John Deere’s case acts as an example that non-IT companies can fully benefit from agile methods, as well. In fact, 88% of US organizations are using agile techniques one way or another. Innovation can take many forms, and each of them can have agile at their core.

Adoption at the Top Will Accelerate Growth and Innovation

As mentioned before, for agile techniques to work, they need to be adopted company-wide, which means that executives make no exception. Granted, these methodologies cannot be used in all C-suite activities, as routine and predictable tasks can’t really benefit from agile. However, it’s the other, more unpredictable work that put the benefits of being agile under the spotlight. Since the focus is on the team, rather than on individuals, senior executives themselves need to form an agile team that relies on the newly improved productivity and morale to can get on the same page with the developers. In the end, it’s simplification and focus that help the entire company strive towards a common goal: innovation.

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