I do a lot of work in the information technology (IT) and biotechnology industries. In the IT world, there have traditionally been two fundamental approaches to software development, known as “waterfall” and “agile”. For our purposes, think of “waterfall” as a sequential or linear software development process and “agile” as a more iterative method of development (I’m aware this is an oversimplification). Agile development methods are multiplying and more and more common as technology organizations strive to stay competitive and continually create value.

I’ve listed below what I have gleaned over the years as the six key principles of agile development methodology:

  • Driving customer and business value continually is paramount.
  • To drive value, you have to have a deep understanding of your customer, the marketplace, and your organization’s business strategy.
  • Time is the enemy. The longer it takes for products and software to be designed, built and deployed, the higher the risk of losing or missing out on providing customer value.
  • The focus is on making small, incremental changes (or releases) that continuously provide increased value.
  • Continual learning and feedback from the incremental releases or improvements is essential.
  • Small teams have defined roles for each person, but there is a high level of collaboration among all team members and each person feels ownership for the final product or results.

The concept of agility is spreading like wildfire into other disciplines and industries, including the field of Human Resources. A whole section in the most recent Harvard Business Review is devoted to this topic. Organizations will only be as agile as their organizational structure, systems, processes and people allow them to be.

From a career standpoint, to those who want to thrive in a world that requires agile responsiveness, may I suggest that we adopt an “agile” approach to our professional development. Let’s look at each of the six principles of agile thinking above, but applied to professional development:

1. Driving customer and business value continually is paramount.

Our organizations are in business to provide value. That value is created through providing products, services, knowledge or advice to our end customers. It’s just as important to understand the concept of value at the individual level. Each of us has a role (a “job description” if you will) with expectations of providing some sort of value to the organization in return for various forms of compensation. If we define “value” as something that our customer (internal or external) wants or needs (cost is part of the consideration as to what is valuable), then at the individual level, we need to be able to answer the following questions:

● Is our individual output (our ‘product’ or service) providing the value our customers expect?
● How is the concept of value being demanded by our customers changing from past expectations (i.e. what trends do we see)?
● Can we clearly show how our value has increased over time?

To remain agile, we cannot lose sight of how others see our value and what it will take to maintain or increase that value. Make sure you are clear on how your value is perceived and if there are any trends as to how others see your value (i.e. do they see your value ebbing, maintaining the status quo, or increasing)?

2. To drive value, you have to have a deep understanding of your customer, the marketplace, and your organization’s business strategy.

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that value is not stationary. It’s dynamic, and continually under threat of eroding, often due to competitive pressures. By way of example, we’re repeatedly given reasons why we need the latest version of a smartphone-because it processes information faster, has more memory, takes better photos, or has other features. I find it interesting that very few of the latest features have anything to do with making a phone call. Our service carriers create plans that allow us to upgrade our smartphones often, usually quite painlessly (even if at a fairly high long-term cost).

Relative to our careers, we have to stay current or even ahead on what’s happening in our business, how the strategy is evolving, how our market is changing, and what’s happening in our customers’ businesses. The really agile professional is not just looking at the existing market or business landscape but recognizes that opportunities (or threats) can come from just about anywhere. Who would have thought that technology would change how we look at transportation services, vehicle utilization and part time employment (just think about Uber or Lyft)?

As Dr. Timothy Clark states, “It’s your job to create value today and, at the same time, plan to create value tomorrow” (EPIC Change, How to Lead Change in the Global Age, Jossey-Bass, 2007).

Consider the following questions in relation to your professional development: How can you continue to build your knowledge and depth of understanding of your business’s competitive landscape and the external forces affecting your markets? Who in your network encourages you to really think strategically and beyond the current reality? What reading, analysis or study are you doing of other businesses and how they are adapting and growing to market conditions?

3. Time is the enemy. The longer it takes for changes to be designed, built and deployed, the higher the risk of missing customer value.

While I fully recognize professional development takes time, we can accelerate our learning and the development of our capabilities. We don’t have to wait until a training course becomes available next year. Vast learning opportunities exist on the web at our fingertips, our colleagues in the next office can help, and we can also get involved in projects beyond our immediate scope of responsibilities. I don’t know of any organization that thinks it has enough resources, and your colleagues will welcome your help. These opportunities could be some of your best development experiences. Think in terms of “micro learning” – ways to learn one concept, tool, or skill and then immediately put it into practice if possible.

Even if you can’t put the learning into immediate practice, an agile professional realizes that all learning is valuable, by helping to expand the mind and opening up new connections among ideas and possibilities for creating additional value down the road.

4. The focus is on making small, incremental changes (or releases) that continuously provide customer value.

The concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) is useful here. The idea behind a MVP is to build a product or service that is complete enough to be tested but may not have all the final options or features. Think about all the ideas that come up over coffee or lunch, where someone says, “wouldn’t it be great if we could do X”, and then the idea dies there. No one picks it up and runs with it. Why not be the person that does something? What kills creativity and innovation in most organizations is the notion that before we release a new service or initiative (even internally), we feel that it must be perfect, with every possible problem anticipated, every question answered, and totally “bug free”. In most cases, getting it 75% right is far better than never getting it out the door.

In relation to your professional development, where can you apply a new (even partially) learned skill, behavior, or new method even if not done perfectly? See what happens, learn from the effort, and make some improvements for the next round.

Just the fact that you’re trying to make improvements will improve others’ perception of your agility.

5. Continually learn and seek feedback from the incremental changes/releases.

In the information technology world, we observe how the product is used, what works, what doesn’t and the customer’s emotional response. In the world of career development, I continue to be amazed how difficult it is in our organizations to seek and receive developmental feedback. I was talking with a client recently who has experienced a major (and innovative) change in how they conduct their performance reviews, but the weak link continues to be in the regular qualitative feedback-the dialogue between people leaders and their teams about how things are going.

To make your feedback process more agile, ask for bite-size responses immediately following a milestone phase or project, perhaps questions such as:

● What’s one thing I should continue (to do well)?
● What’s one thing I could do that would improve or change my contribution?

Seek feedback in person if possible, but if not, use video conference services, email, text or a short survey tool. Make a regular habit of seeking and listening to what your customers have to say about your value.

6. Small teams have defined roles for each person, but there is a high level of collaboration among all team members and each person feels ownership for the final product or results.

In a software development team there are specific roles for developers, designers, product managers, delivery managers, data or technology analysts and quality testing, for example. And yet, these roles will often overlap and support each other to ensure the overall objective is achieved.

Career development is a lot more fun when we engage our colleagues, and work together to grow our capabilities. Perhaps there are others who are seeking to build the same skill you are-how can you help each other? Alternatively, if you have a skill in an area where a colleague is weak or vice-versa, how can you learn from each other and both benefit? How can your team share information about the business horizon, feedback and micro learning opportunities? Your colleagues probably know more about your capabilities than even your manager. Utilize their ideas and suggestions to create more agility within your team.

As I mentioned earlier, it all comes down to sustaining and driving value. Organizations will only sustain their competitive value if the people within are learning faster than their competitive peers. Adopting an agile professional development approach is one key to increasing the rate of learning within your organization.