Agile Ideas That Address Problems When They're Still Small

On projects, problems seem to be inevitable. How do you deal with them? 

The standard, familiar answers include:

  • Think ahead
  • Anticipate
  • Take preventive measures
  • Rely on experienced people
  • Have backup plans
  • Supervise workers and track their actions
  • Measure and monitor progress
  • Escalate needs up the chain of command

These responses are useful to some extent, but they are not always effective. You’ve probably been involved in projects that had big problems despite good people, careful planning and close supervision. How can you do better?

The agile approach is useful for many reasons, one of which is rarely cited: It helps us notice and address small problems before they become big problems. Interestingly, you can get this benefit from just a handful of agile ideas without having to go all-in on agile. Let’s review common types of problems, and see how those agile ideas help…

1. Product fit: Even when you take your time to gather requirements and produce designs, the results may misalign with customer expectations. Agile practitioners obsess about feedback: They constantly check with their consumers to see if what they’ve produced leads to its intended purpose and outcome. This frequent checking helps catch incorrect assumptions before acting on them has big consequences.

2. Quality of construction: Quality is often associated with testing from requirements, and thus done at the end—which may produce unpleasant surprises. (Before cloud computing, I once spent two months building a reporting engine before the architect wondered, "Hey Gil, what about load balancing?" Oops!) Agile promotes quality from day one, and makes it the entire team’s responsibility. It spends more time testing and checking throughout the work, thereby reducing the likelihood of large corrections and delays.

3. Individual performance: I regularly meet managers who assume that a certain worker is capable and productive, only to be shocked when another worker produces decisive evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, this discovery tends to be months too late. The agile idea of team ownership (everyone is an equal owner of the team’s deliverables), combined with continuous quality, tends to shorten the time-to-discovery to a couple of weeks.

4. Teamwork: Are you working with a team, and is it doing well? For the team to norm and perform, every member has to want to be in that particular team. We’ve learned from 20 years of agile teams that respect, trust, transparency and safety—all of them—are necessary for voluntary participation. When even one of those values is absent, all you have are busy individuals with a common boss.

5. Motivation: Almost by default, a healthy agile environment fulfills (to some extent) the necessary conditions for motivation: autonomy, mastery, purpose, enjoy-ability and challenge. Yet, it doesn’t take much to erode people’s motivation, and once their negative self-talk starts, they may quickly disengage. Agile has made popular the idea of frequent team-wide reflection, which provides chances for early prevention. Agile has also demonstrated the value of servant leadership, wherein people lead, empower and enable others rather than manage them as inert “resources.”

6. Dates and scope: If you organize work along a sequence of functions (as in waterfall), early delays may compromise what you can deliver and when, and create bigger problems than mere scheduling. Organizing work to complete the highest-value items first (as in agile) tends to prevent escalation of blame and mistrust among management, customers and the team.

In addition, having stable and dedicated teams—which agile suggests but doesn’t mandate—allows members time to develop goodwill, ownership and mutual accountability. These serve as a form of insurance in later stages if the going gets tough.

The agile approach to people, product, project and process is a marked departure from traditional approaches. It provides many insights into dealing with small problems before they turn into big problems. And even without a full adoption of the agile approach, you should be able to incorporate the above mentioned principles and ideas usefully.


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