Agile for small business

16th June, 2016

‘Agile’ has become a bit of a buzzword lately, with everyone from the Australian Prime Minister downwards declaring that we all need to ‘be more agile’.

But when you cut through the jargon and politicising what does that really mean?

For small business owners, there are so many other competing priorities it is often a juggle just to keep all the various plates spinning, let alone trying to implement whatever the business trend du jour happens to be.

Matt Sharpe, Director of Digital Taskforce, veteran consultant and Agile advisor, explains that at its core Agile is a people-centric approach to creating value early and regularly.

“It is about working in close collaboration with your customers and your teams to deliver and test small increments of value into the market,” says Sharpe, “learning from and getting feedback from your customers, and then improving upon and releasing the next incremental piece of value.”

While that sounds great in theory, many small business owners may consider Agile ideas and methods to offer no useful function outside of the world of software development and the large enterprises who have the resources to fund them.

Sharpe agrees that this is the perception, saying that Agile is traditionally seen as something that is ‘hard to do’ and typically practiced by those with expensive certifications working in large-scale teams to build complex products. But he feels that Agile has definitely moved on from its roots as a set of values and principles for software development.

What is Agile?

At its core, Agile is a way of thinking and working to get things done. It was developed and is used to get cross-functional teams working to get products made and into market without getting bogged down by burdensome processes, procedures and documentation.

Rather than being a set of firm rules, Agile centres around a set of principles designed to focus on working in a collaborative way to produce functioning products that meet customers’ needs. It promotes adaptive planning and continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.

Transitioning agile ideas into small business

“Agile ideas have crossed over and moved into the mainstream. Thought leaders in businesses both large and small are coming to realise that the concepts and thinking behind Agile development can be used as a sound framework for running virtually any kind of business activity,” he says.

“We work with a lot of small businesses,” Sharpe continues, “and one of the main challenges that face many of them is that of cash flow – of not overcommitting the business to expensive development, unsold inventory and debtor risk for example.

“Thinking in an Agile way offers some solutions here. Transitioning your supply chain to a just-in-time model for example and minimising any product development to just what is required to get a ‘minimum viable product’ into the market where possible can all help reduce costs and associated risks.”

Implementing Agile principles into the way you run your business could be the catalyst that helps provide the scale and flexibility that can take your business from surviving to thriving.

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How to be more agile – with a small ‘a’

Thinking and practicing agility needn’t be complex, and many small businesses often do this naturally as they need to be resourceful and flexible to survive.

But how can you start being more deliberate in ‘thinking agile’ and what does this actually look like in your business?

Sharpe offers some insights and a few simple steps to get started:

“Firstly speak to your customers. Really understand what they actually need (which is not necessarily what they think they need) and give it to them. This will lead to greater satisfaction and loyalty.

“For example, if you are in a service business, is there any way to simplify what you offer to address a core need first and delight the customer before starting to upsell?

“Secondly, if you’re operating in a competitive environment, agile thinking also offers a framework to help get a viable version of your product out into the market early and steal that competitive advantage.

“Finally, there are many other ways in which being more agile in your approach to how you think about, develop and sell your product or service will help you connect with your customers and help build loyalty and advocacy. There is a growing network of advisors in the market who can help all small businesses benefit from these learnings and approaches.”

The common-sense approach

Ultimately, being agile is a common-sense approach to increasing collaboration, reducing risk, maximising value early on and putting the focus squarely on customer satisfaction.

Agile is no longer just for the big end of town – or for software developers. Thinking agile fits perfectly with many small businesses who are able to get close to their customers, understand their needs and deliver to them exactly what they need.

Agile thinking can be the difference between losing yourself in the minutiae of survival or forcing yourself to look outwards to collaborate, develop, grow and see your business thrive.