Breaking Agile Out of IT

Agile emerged in the 1990s as a way to make work faster, more flexible and more humane. And while it’s conquered the world of IT, it’s still in the early stages of adoption in many other industries and functions. Curtis Hibbs explains how agile has evolved to date and what you can do to help it break out of IT for good.

Written by Curtis Hibbs • 10 August 2023


You’re either a leader or a follower – or so we’ve been told. In reality, the distinction between leader and follower needn’t be so binary.

In fact, Derek Sivers, an author, entrepreneur and TED speaker, makes the point in a hilarious video called “Dancing Guy” that the most important person in building a movement isn’t the leader. It’s the person who first recognizes the importance of a new idea and who latches onto the person espousing it. The “first follower” effectively legitimizes the new idea and performs the crucial function of showing others how to follow.

The “Dancing Guy” video came to mind the other day, as I was thinking about the evolution of agile in the project management world. Agile is now the de facto standard in the IT industry, where it had its start. But it’s only just establishing itself in other industries and functional areas. What it needs is more first followers in companies outside of IT.

Perhaps you’ve toyed with the idea of experimenting with agile in your company or organization. Business cycles are turning faster every day. Technology is constantly evolving. And risk and uncertainty are omnipresent. You’re wondering if there’s a way of working in this environment that’s more collaborative and iterative and that delivers better results with improved transparency and governance. If so, then agile may be for you.

There may be challenges, of course. Some fields, especially those in the public sector, are governed by strict regulations and compliance requirements. Others deal in fixed deliverables, such as physical products and research results. And then there are factors – like organizational inertia, lack of customer access, and the absence of training – that work against adopting more agile ways of working.

But there has been progress. Through experimentation, training, and effective change management, early pioneers like GE Healthcare, Nokia, John Deere, Saab, and Boeing have successfully repurposed agile in pragmatic ways for non-software applications. They helped establish the early templates and guides that have aided the broader adoption of agile outside the IT world.

Today, in fact, agile is making inroads in multiple sectors and industries:

  • In manufacturing, agile is helping introduce iterative design prototyping and short-cycle production to reduce product development timelines.
  • In the automotive industry, agile is enabling rapid design sprints and more frequent customer feedback loops in vehicle development.
  • In the aerospace industry, iterative agile practices are facilitating the faster design, simulation, and testing of complex systems like aircraft and satellites.
  • In the medical technology and pharma sectors, agile is allowing for more flexible clinical trials and for device design and development that is more centered on patient needs.
  • Even in functions like marketing, agile is facilitating more iterative campaign development and launch cycles based on customer data versus rigid annual plans.

Agile, itself, has been evolving as a result of its adoption outside of IT. There’s less emphasis on technical tasks and a greater focus on end user actions and outcomes. More weight is given to upstream planning to allow for complex tasks like requirements setting, design, and coordination of dependencies. And hybrid models are emerging in which elements of agile are combined with traditional stage-gate or waterfall processes resulting in models tailored to regulatory and hardware contexts.

In altering its workflows and integrating reasonable guardrails, agile has proven adaptable to these diverse domains. What hasn’t changed, however, is its focus on speed and flexibility. Agile, after all, emerged as a backlash to the rigid, documentation-heavy processes dominant in the 1990s. Speed and flexibility are its raison d’être.

So, what should you do if you’re a non-IT project professional who wants to bring some of this speed and flexibility to your projects? Here’s my advice:

  • Start small. Run a pilot on a low-risk sub-project or process to test agile and gain experience before broader rollout.
  • Gain executive buy-in. Ensure leadership is supportive and willing to adapt its management style to be more agile-friendly.
  • Get team buy-in. Involve the team early and get their input on agile workflows to increase engagement.
  • Start with mindset. Focus first on shifting team mindsets to agile principles before specific practices.
  • Be patient. It takes time to successfully adopt agile, especially on larger initiatives. Allow for missteps.
  • Empower self-organization. Enable the team to define workflows and interactions with less top-down control.
  • Focus on customer value. Make sure agile processes center on delivering the most important outcomes for customers/stakeholders.
  • Inspect and adapt. Hold regular retrospectives to assess what's working and adjust processes over time.
  • Communicate often. Overcommunicate within the team and externally to stakeholders about changes.

The key is to start small, gain buy-in, adapt agile practices to your environment, and emphasize customer-centric values. It's a journey, after all. But early pioneers have provided a roadmap. All it takes is a smart first follower like you to deliver the benefits.


Curtis Hibbs
Agile Thought Leader | PMI

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