When you start auditioning software developers for your custom application project, you won’t get very far without hearing about agile. Sprints. Burndown. Scrum. Agile, agile, agile. It’s like touching down in a foreign country, where the residents speak a language very different from yours, but they all seem to understand each other and speak with absolute commitment.
Agile doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery. Founded by a team of renegade software developers in Snowbird, UT in 2001, agile is simply a methodology for the creation of digital products. It evolved in contrast to the waterfall method of product development, which approached the process in a sequential manner, with one step building on the other.
Waterfall methodology carried over from the development of physical products. Agile, in contrast, envisioned a new approach to software development adapted for the digital realm. Rather than approach the product development project step-by-step, the project would advance through a series of short bursts of development called “sprints,” short development cycles executed by self-governing, cross-functional teams that regroup and track progress during meetings called “scrums.”
The result is a development cycle that builds organically over a series of iterations, each iteration building on each other with ample opportunity for team interaction and user feedback. Over time, it became the preferred methodology for 86% of software developers, producing 28% better outcomes according to a study by PWC.
There are a variety of reasons many companies prefer agile for their custom application development. Here are five advantages of agile for custom application development.
1. Increased Flexibility
The iterative nature of agile development projects makes them more flexible. If hypotheses and assumptions change or get disproven at any point in the process, you can always pivot in the next iteration.
This makes agile development projects more adaptable to changing conditions. Whereas a pivot can derail an entire waterfall project, agile development can adapt to a pivot within a couple of weeks, as if nothing ever happened. The importance of team and stakeholder engagement in agile methodology makes sure that all stakeholders can get on board with changing project parameters before the next iteration.
The flexibility of agile is uniquely adapted to the digital world. With no physical products or useless supplies to be scrapped in the event of a pivot, all there is to change is code. A little time is lost but not much. This flexibility enables developers to approach feedback with open eyes and ears, rather than avoid feedback because of the sunk costs and produce a faulty product as a result. Agile methodology allows developers to keep iterating until they get it right.
2. Risk Mitigation
The fact that you can keep iterating until you get it right teases out an unusual feature of agile methodology—it’s almost impossible to fail. Is there anything you would be afraid to try if you knew you couldn’t fail?
This may be painting too rosy a picture, but think about it—anything missing from a previous iteration can be corrected in the next iteration. If user feedback uncovers a problem or suggests a whole different direction for the project, you can adapt or pivot. The time spent on the “failed” iteration is never really wasted—something from the sprint can usually be salvaged and carried into the next iteration.
If you adhere to agile methodology rigorously, eventually you will come up with a marketable product, even if it looks nothing like the original vision. Of course, this takes a talented development team, strongly grounded in agile methodology. It also requires trust, buy-in, and transparency from all stakeholders. If you have these things covered, however, choosing agile methodology significantly reduces the risk of project failure.
3. Customer Satisfaction
Agile methodology is uniquely poised to drive toward customer satisfaction. The reason for this is simple—agile methodology incorporates user feedback early and often.
One key member of the agile team is the product owner. Different from a “product manager” and certainly not the sole “owner” of the product IP, the role of the product owner on the agile team is to serve as a liaison between the stakeholders and the customer, representing the customer’s interests in the development of the product.
The product manager makes sure that customer feedback plays a role in every sprint, every iteration. As soon as possible, prototypes or minimum viable products should be put in customer hands to get genuine feedback. The product that arrives at the end of an agile process is not a wild guess at the needs of the customer—because the customer has made their needs known at every available juncture.
4. Continuous Improvement
Part and parcel of agile development is a culture of continuous improvement. Each sprint builds on the last sprint, with regular “scrums” and stakeholder communication to keep everyone on the same page and sprinting in the same direction.
Properly executed, an agile project doesn’t progress sequentially from “vision” to “done.” Each iteration is technically “done”–and then it’s time to progress to the next interaction, this one better than the last.
The product that goes to market isn’t even the “final” version of the product—it’s just the first iteration that gets sold to customers. The agile process continues, iterating improvements, new features, and developments to keep the user base engaged and growing.
5. More Team and Stakeholder Engagement
By relying on self-managing and self-organizing teams, agile development promotes cooperation, synergy, and better morale. It doesn’t mean there is never conflict, but it does impose systems of accountability, cooperation, communication, and a chain of command.
Agile development limits the chance of turf wars and adversarial relationships between teams, because the process includes continued regrouping and re-commitment to the ultimate business goal of the project. The team serves the product.
Another key component of agile development is the involvement and co-signing of the stakeholders. By committing to transparency and stakeholder involvement, agile development contributes not only to customer satisfaction, but to stakeholder satisfaction.
The popularity of agile attests to its effectiveness as a development methodology for custom software. If you are committed to product quality, transparency, customer satisfaction, stakeholder satisfaction, team morale, and limiting risk, it’s a compelling choice.