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What does agile working mean?

Agility is the buzzword in management guidebooks. But what is the truth behind the trend and how can a company become agile without suffering shipwreck? This article provides answers.

Foto: Sunrise UPC GmbH - Screenshot

With beautiful regularity, management consultants come up with new terms to delight their clients. If everything had to be "lean" and streamlined in the 1990s - waste was a great sin - a new magic word has established itself in recent years: Agility.


At first glance, this makes sense, because hardly anyone will disagree that the ever faster technological change, especially as a result of digitalisation, means that companies also have to become faster and more adaptable. But that's how it is with saviours: The term is now used in an inflationary manner and not everyone who talks about "agile" knows what is meant. Reason enough to take a closer look at what agile actually means.


Agile working is old hat. In 1943, Kelly Johnson had Lockheed Martin develop a new fighter aircraft, and the engineers were allowed to work on it themselves, organised and together with the pilots. After a record-breaking 143 days, the P80 jet was ready. Over the decades, organisational researchers in particular dealt with the topic of agility. In 2001, these experiences culminated in the agile manifesto, in which 17 IT experts defined new methods of software development. This is the reason why agile principles first established themselves in the software industry; only later did people discover how they could also be used for project management and corporate leadership. Digitalisation, collaborative and team-oriented forms of work and closer partnerships with customers have encouraged this.


When is a company agile?

But what exactly does "agile" mean and when is a company agile? Classical organisational structures are process- and project-oriented, tasks are processed in a linear way and according to predefined rules, they are more interested in maintaining their own status quo. In contrast, agile organisations strive for change, they maximise customer value, are flexible and develop their own initiative. Agile companies work iteratively in small steps, so-called sprints; mistakes are wanted because they provide ideas for the next sprint.


How to work agilely

Grafik: Sunrise UPC GmbH - Screenshot

Agility in business processes is not a method, but a kind of toolbox containing different tools that can be used to achieve agility: Design Thinking, Kanban and above all Scrum, which is used in more than half of all agile projects according to the annual survey by CollabNet VersionOne.


Even though Scrum is not equal to agility, it stands for it like no other method because of its importance. Scrum is so popular because the concept can be summarised on one A4 page and there is a clear process, furthermore Scrum contains all the values that are defined in the agile manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions are more important than processes and tools

  • Functioning software is more important than comprehensive documentation

  • Cooperation with the client is more important than contract negotiation

  • Responding to change is more important than following a plan

In addition, Scrum demands the values of respect, self-commitment, openness, focus and courage.


Scrum has three roles:

  • Product owner: interface between client and team

  • Team: Ensures implementation

  • Scrum Master: Monitors compliance with the method and acts as a coach. He documents the progress of the sprints in a Scrum Board.

The fact that the agile methodology comes from software development is no longer a limitation today. With Scrum and other methods, the agile toolbox is well stocked and suitable for development and change projects of all kinds. However, before a company gets involved in agile methods, it should ask itself whether it can really live these values. Hierarchically organised companies with a pronounced culture of command and obedience, in which only tasks are processed, have a hard time.


A few months ago, UPC set up a department that drives digitalisation and works in an agile manner. Urs Reinhard, Chief Digital Officer at UPC, has had very good experience with agile working: "The changeover has brought great advantages. We have become massively faster with reduced risk at the same time. Agile automatically puts customer benefit at the centre, which is why we can now directly implement the wishes and needs of the customers. For agile working to work, however, every employee has to get personally involved in it."


It is also wrong to assume that agile methods replace all other approaches. In accounting or human resources, where familiar tasks are processed in a linear fashion, agility can even be counterproductive.


In contrast, where problems are complex or even chaotic and can no longer be easily understood and described, agile methods are recommended because they break down complexity and make it manageable.


And anyone who has ever taken part in a Scrum project or a Design Thinking workshop knows: they are a lot of fun.

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