Pros and cons of the agile approach

Superscript
10 September 2021
4 minute read

If you work in digital business, then you’ve probably heard the term ‘agile’ bandied about. In fact, recent research found that 97% of organisations are now using the agile methodology in their work, so you may even be doing the same.

But, if you’re relatively new to the term, you may be wondering exactly what agile working is and what the pros and cons are for your business. This article covers all of those areas, so you can decide if it's right for you.

What is the agile methodology?

The agile methodology is a project management approach that involves breaking processes and projects down into incremental pieces or phases. So rather than trying to do everything in one go (the ‘waterfall approach’), agile teams divide their tasks into discrete modules that they test and perfect individually before continuing.

The agile method was developed in the IT industry, where it is used to build adaptive and personalised software which can respond in real-time to consumer feedback. Software is delivered continuously, in fortnightly cycles known as ‘iterations’, rather than as a single (and unchangeable) fait accompli.

In business, teams use the agile approach to achieve projects more efficiently and deliver value quicker and more seamlessly.

Collaboration

Although agile will not work for every business or department (workable increments are, quite simply, impossible for some industries to deliver), agile methods are increasingly being deployed across a range of functions, beyond software development.

From startups to big corporations, businesses are adopting agile modes of management, project development, and more. So what are the big advantages and disadvantages of this way of working?

Advantages of the agile methodology

Rapid delivery

The agile process allow you to deliver workable increments to your clients very quickly. They may not be perfect increments, but the understanding is that you will build upon these foundations on an ongoing basis. If you need to get something up and running fast, the agile approach is a good way to go about it.

Adaptable

Because the increments are small, it’s very easy for projects to change direction and/or otherwise adapt to altering circumstances without undoing much of what has gone before.

Collaborative

Agile working requires a lot of feeding back and forth between teams, clients, and customers. This makes for a collaborative environment in which silo walls are broken down and collective creativity often flourishes.

Quick problem detection

Quick problem detection

You’re testing your increments on the go, so it quickly becomes apparent when problems crop up. Even better, the fragmented nature of what you’re doing means that you can usually pinpoint precisely where the problem lies and what’s causing it, so as to fix the issue with the next incremental cycle.

Transparent

You’re constantly showing your workings with the agile approach. Nothing can be hidden in the developmental archives – it’s all out there, in the open, happening before your very eyes.

Continuous improvement

When operating a waterfall approach, you can only evaluate performance once the project has completed development and is out in the marketplace. In order to improve, you must produce an entirely new and enhanced version.

Given the pace of modern society, this isn’t as viable an option as it once was. The agile approach allows you to evaluate and improve on the hoof, in a continuous real-time process.

Disadvantages of the agile methodology

Tricky paradigm shift

Some businesses and industries lend themselves naturally to the agile approach. For others, however, shifting from a sequential and schedule-bound mode to the more freeform agile approach can be a difficult change to manage. Teething troubles are inevitable but can easily be fixed.

Lack of specifics

The ad-hoc, reactive nature of the agile method makes it hard to pin down specifics like deadlines and costs. This can lead to sloppy budgeting, poor timing, and a general dearth of practical boundaries to work to.

Neglect of paperwork

Neglect of paperwork

The agile approach often requires quick shifts from one aspect of a project to another. This may leave little time for doing the proper paperwork at each stage. Record-keeping is important, but it is often a casualty of agile working methods.

Ephemeral planning

The agile ethos is in many ways more reactive than proactive. It’s about responding to issues and feedback in real-time. For many, this means that proper planning gets left behind in the rush to react, adapt, and improve. You need a strong core vision so that your overarching plan doesn’t get lost in the ongoing process.

Lack of overall cohesion

All of this comes together to represent a lack of overall cohesion when using the agile approach. It’s all too easy for the continuous process to run away with itself, and for the goals to get lost in the details.

While it is perfectly possible to be both agile and cohesive, it takes strong leadership and a consistent strategy to keep everyone and every increment working towards the same vision.

Is the agile methodology right for you?

The answer to this question depends a lot on the kind of business you’re running and the kind of projects you’re involved in.

Agile tends to suit smaller, more adaptive businesses with strong core teams and a fluid communication style. It becomes less and less effective as companies scale, largely because the mechanisms of management become more unwieldy and processes get codified. However, it’s not impossible for larger businesses to implement agile methods, and many are doing so.

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