In a recent meeting, a colleague of mine mentioned that we wanted to use agile development this time with that new project and that I would provide some insight as an ‘agile development expert’ (not that this would be a term I would use). This in turn brought me some curious looks and a pretty general question during the discussion: what is the benefit of an agile development model from a business perspective anyway?

If I remember correctly, my answer went in the direction that with an agile approach you can change your mind about what you really need/want to implement throughout the project, if you learn something ‘new’ about what is really required. The second important aspect is that you get quicker feedback which allows for more influence in case things don’t turn out right. After the meeting I started pondering the question a little, as I had the impression that my answer wasn’t that convincing, so what you find below is a more detailed written elaboration of it.

Basically, what “you can change your mind throughout the project” boils down to is that agile development gives you more options to make use of opportunities coming up along the way/throughout the time you need to implement the project. The most important idea here is that you don’t make decisions too early, because that limits your options. For an example, let’s assume that one feature we specify is that we want to have a ‘Facebook like’-button on the order page. Now, if we’re following the waterfall style ‘implementation follows after specification has been completed’ development model, you would specify that and design the page with the button and at some time in the future, you hopefully get your Facebook button. But maybe during the hypothetical nine months from now in which development happens, what if Germany’s privacy laws enforce new severe restrictions on the use of such buttons and, btw., Google+ is now the new hip site you have to support? You have to go through a (with larger features typically quite costly) change process, redo the specification, etc. This essentially makes the cost you had in writing the specification as well as for the design etc. a double problem: you didn’t get out any ROI, obviously, but additionally time has passed while writing specs, doing design etc. in which you didn’t really work on any results for the customer (lost opportunity: gather new clients with at least some new features).

So, you would have been better off with having the idea that at some point throughout the project you want ‘social media integration for marketing reasons’ and delaying what to do exactly until you’re really there (from a priority point of view) where this is a feature that you want implemented — i.e. you do the specification when your planning that feature to get implemented in the next development phase (which is typically two to four weeks with an agile development team). The idea is to take small, well defined steps that can be taken fast and starting out with the most important/valuable ones first, rather than to spend a lot of time on some ‘complete specification’ which withers fast throughout the projects implementation time.

The problematic point here is obviously, that it’s pretty difficult to say when exactly is the right point in time to make a decision. In general, there is no ‘right point’ — also often called the last responsible moment after which some opportunity is lost (I think the phrase was coined by Mary and Tom Poppendieck, see the excerpt from ‘Lean software development’) — but multiple points in time, depending on many aspects. Influencing aspects are things like business opportunities (e.g. a new feature nobody else has at that time) or reducing risks (projects risks) (cf. Alistair Coburn reconsidering the least responsible moment). The best answer I currently have seen when to make a decision is that it should be taken when you have ‘enough knowledge’, i.e. when you have carefully considered your options and evaluated them (cf. real options). Even thinking about options alone is typically a highly valuable undertaking in itself, because all to often people just assume that the ‘obvious way’ is the best one.

So, the general answer is probably along the way of: for the business side, agile development has the benefit that it provides more flexibility and more influence throughout the project phase while at the same time (possibly) generating real value/revenue more early. There is, of course, more to it that also has appeal from a business perspective, but that’s probably the main point. Feel free to add different opionions.

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