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Back to Basics: What is Agile?

Agile is used to describe a number of things nowadays. We speak of the need to be agile in our methodologies and our approach to problem solving. We have discussions of agile content and an agile content strategy. In fact, agile has become one of those words that nearly everybody uses with the assumption that it is universally understood. And maybe it is. But maybe not.

Agile comes from the world of software development. At its heart is the idea that development is iterative and incremental. “...you start with something simple, understand it needs improvement, and quickly make those improvements based on feedback.” Ta Da... you have just demonstrated agile development.

In any agile methodology, feedback is the fuel that powers the process. Think about it: Without feedback (reactions—good bad or indifferent), how will you know what to change, how much and in what ways? Let’s use a simple example to illustrate an agile process that relies on iterative and incremental improvements to continually get better.

Assume that you have the responsibility to give a brief overview of your company to visitors. Let’s further assume that your company has many visitors from a variety of locations, backgrounds and experiences and that you deliver your message about twice a month to visitor audiences of various sizes.

Certainly, you would begin your planning and preparation with the end in mind. In other words, you would have a pretty clear idea of what you wanted to cover, the reactions you’d like from the audience and a list of preferred take-away impressions. In an effort to achieve what you had in mind, you would carefully choose the examples you would use, the jokes you would tell, the comparisons you would offer and the conclusions you would draw.

What would you do if your first session went terribly wrong? No visitors laughed at your jokes. No one was impressed by your facts, and not a single audience member agreed with your conclusions. Clearly, this is a worst-case scenario to make our point. In reality, the reactions would likely be a mixed bag of feedback. But the question remains. What would you do?

You could say, “Well, that didn’t go very well. I hope the next one is better.” You could say that. But we’re betting you would do just the opposite and swing into action. You would probably take a hard look at what you presented, evaluate your facts, perhaps find different jokes or eliminate them altogether and try harder to make what you present more relevant to audience members.

We’re betting you would do all of this based on the what you observed, how the audience reacted—what they did or didn’t do, what they said or didn’t say, their body language, facial expressions, the questions they asked ...or didn’t. In other words, you would come up with a new version (iteration) of your overview based on audience feedback. This is agile in action.

You may never reach a point where your presentation achieves the optimal response every time. But gradual improvement will move you closer and closer to your ideal product. And if you are conscientious, you will never stop trying to make it better.

What underpins agile is the recognition that the output is dynamic—ever-changing with the goal of achieving higher and higher quality. Does that mean that a commitment to agile paints you into a corner of a job that will never be done?

We think that question is born of the wrong attitude. Isn’t it better to filter it through practical reality, gratitude even? Is it realistic to assume that every first effort will be the best? And doesn’t that posture neglect the target audience’s point of view—the very perspective that could be the most important in shaping content for maximum success?

Be grateful that you have the chance to constantly get better and to continually improve quality. Because, in the end, quality is what differentiates, builds audiences, drives sales and increases market share. That’s the end. Agile is the means to it.

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