Agile Design from A to Z

Defining a New Way of Working

As architects who specialize in workplace design, we have seen the birth and the slow rise to fame of Agile work methodologies. Initially implemented in the tech sector but later embraced by other sectors, Agile methods have proven to be attractive for their flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness. In a world of accelerated change, individuals in finance, consumer products, and commercial industries are the emerging champions of this new way of working. And, while every organization is different and has its own unique tale of transformation, the fundamental ideas of Agile are strong enough that they can be told with some level of universal understanding.

At its best, Agile is customer centric, prototype-driven, collaborative, and iterative.

Providing a framework for both project management and workflow, Agile is a methodology in which self-regulating teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work cadences, or “Sprints.” The methodology differs from the Waterfall approach where processes are sequential and product development resembles an automobile moving down an assembly line. In contrast, Agile values individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Similarly, working software is held in a higher regard than comprehensive documentation, as is customer collaboration (versus contract negotiation). Finally, it is more important to be responsive to change than to blindly follow through on a plan.

Putting into action the values epitomized by Agile is a task that any seasoned veteran will admit involves major change management. With all the blood, sweat, and tears involved, why go Agile at all?

Agile Methodologies, the Argument for Embracing

Companies will embrace Agile methodologies for a number of reasons—a primary reason being the potential for quality interactions between individuals and teams. By integrating an approach to project management with a style of workflow, Agile serves as a more holistic system for supporting healthy product development. The extent to which all moving project parts overlap creates high levels of transparency and results in the formation of trusting relationships and barrier-free communication.

The value of “going Agile” is also evident in an increased capacity to respond to change and the ability to move projects along faster. As opposed to Waterfall, Agile utilizes team feedback and flexible project environments to increase the speed and efficiency of problem solving and product delivery. The constant monitoring and evaluation of progress maintain a highly dynamic and adaptable process from start to finish.

Finally, Agile offers a unique approach to collaboration. Agile enables collaboration across the functional boundaries that typically silo teams in a more traditional work environment. It accomplishes this using team organizations that are driven by product lines or features, as well as through a workflow that enables project challenges to move back and forth between teams. Ultimately, such a collaborative approach empowers and motivates individuals to make more user-centric products.

Demystifying Agile: What Change Leaders Should Do First and How

The most important step in any transformation process is to listen to the end user. Define what Agile means to the people in an organization. Determine what works for the culture and identify those spaces that will support the framework of a new methodology. Understand that existing cultural conditions will often simultaneously act as roadblocks to the implementation of Agile. Therefore, establish a balance for the focus of the change, between catering to existing end user needs and changing them.

Getting everyone on board is also key. Talking with key decision makers to understand the vision for change and including design teams early in the process will help everyone to understand organizational goals and initiatives. Ultimately, buy-in from key players will drive the change forward.  

 Change leaders should be constantly gathering resources from those individuals who have already seen the light and day of Agile transformation. The old idiom “picking the brains” of experienced people—individuals from Real Estate and Human Resources, in particular—will result in an invaluable knowledge bank, as well as a set of tools for overcoming future challenges.

The final step involves piloting the Agile environment. Testing small before going big gives both end users and key decision makers a taste of the coming changes. At the same time, piloting allows them to establish feedback loops, such as observational studies and surveys, as a strategy to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Designing the Right Spaces to Support Agile

In any well-designed workspace, Agile or not, flexibility is a driving principle. Space that can be reconfigured as needs change translates into modular planning principles, mobile furniture, and multi-use spaces. It is important to understand that while flexibility is not unique to the Agile environment it is being implemented to a different key than most other traditional workspaces. While traditional planning emphasizes flexibility in space to support teams (rather than individuals), Agile pushes for flexibility that prioritizes project spaces over team spaces. The result of this shift encourages ownership of space. Furthermore, employees’ ability to control their environments results in a streamlined workspace that is focused on meeting the needs of specific projects.

Driven by flexibility, Agile spaces strive to reinforce the project workflows and team configurations that characterize Agile methods. Three key space concepts can serve as a starting point for translating this framework into Agile space.

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FIRST, you must consider the team space. These dense and reconfigurable zones support a key feature of the Agile method known as the Sprint, which take many forms, including Sprint planning, retrospective, review, and execution. The Sprint is a time-box of one month or less during which a fully operational and ready-to-ship product is created. For maximum performance, these spaces should be equipped with tools for visual thinking, knowledge sharing, and physical prototyping. At the same time, shifting between cross-functional collaboration and heads-down work demands that team spaces be designed with flexible enclosures and on a module that can be scaled according to project needs.

SECOND, understand that a successful product must be tested and observed by others before it hits the market. To this point, demo space is a critical tool for teams to reach their goal within the Agile framework. On one hand, the ability of members to observe each other’s contributions is a powerful motivator. On the other hand, opportunities to gauge a group’s progress reinforces an approach to providing feedback that is incremental and iterative. In addition, demo space should integrate tools and settings for customer collaboration. Whether this is for employees to collaborate with customers or for end users to experience the product journey, these demo spaces bring an element of real world testing that pushes product development to the next level. 

THIRD, integrate stand-up spaces to support the daily meeting ritual of Agile teams. Although typically held in unofficial or in-between areas of a workspace, stand-up spaces are critical for accommodating team check-ins. Also known as daily Scrums, lasting no more than 15 minutes, stand-up meetings focus on synchronizing activities between team members, reviewing progress toward the Sprint goal, and creating a plan for the next 24 hours.

Escape from the Formal Workspace, Unlock Innovation and Breed Creativity

Just as important as the ideas hatched over whiteboards and workstations are the experiences shared in the café, by the pantry, along the hallway, or in passing with a co-worker on the stairs. Often enough, the most significant aha moments are those that come as end users inhabit and engage in these “third spaces” of the workplace.

Implementing planning principles, such as accessibility, access to light, ergonomic materials, diverse furniture, a range of enclosures, and the general concept of providing options, will make third spaces that much more successful. When applied in opportune amounts, these design features create casual collisions and support idea mingling, while fostering relationships that extend beyond business transactions. The end result is improved communication and understanding among co-workers that will ultimately extend back to the formal workspace.

Agile Methodology is in its Infancy.

As transparency, connectivity, and interactivity increasingly define how business is done across major industries, organizations are looking for ways to implement new ways of working. Today, we know Agile methods are relevant beyond the tech sector. Moving forward, the critical question is how workplace leaders can craft Agile approaches to make them their own.