Why I think agility isn’t just another buzzword

September 28, 2018
Aya Jaff
Company Updates

I’ve been invited to the Kellogg’s Cluster Days to hold a keynote about how important an agile mindset in my opinion is

Yesterday I’ve been invited to the Kellogg’s Cluster Days to hold a keynote about how important an agile mindset in my opinion is. In order to prepare the keynote, they sent over their company approach for more agility in business life:

BE BOLD || BE CURIOUS || BE CONNECTED

An approach, I am fully committed to myself, which is why I was very happy to get a chance to be part of this motivating and inspirational event.

Now some of you may ask themselves what a coder girl like me has to do with agility. So that’s the story behind it…

HOW I BECAME AGILE

Kellogg's Cluster Days at Heidepark (Soltau)

Some of you may know my story, others not – so here we go in short: I was born in Iraq, in a time where the life of my parents and my sister was controlled by war. We became refugees and soon found ourselves in Germany. With no money. We didn’t know the language. Hell we didn’t even know how to enroll in school. Of course, my family could’ve thrown the towel and think that it’s too difficult to adjust to a whole new country in such a short period of time. But you know what? They didn’t! They were ready and open to learn new things every day even if it was tough and challenging. For me, that was the beginning of agility in my life.

The person, that was keeping agility in my life, was my mother. She used to say: „Aya, ask as many questions as you can. There are no dumb questions!“. So I did – wherever and whenever it was possible. I came up with new ideas all the time. Ideas to make the school system more efficient, many app ideas among them. I would soon have a wall full of pictures and ideas and constantly put more things on there. Luckily, I had the drive not only to dream about these ideas but also to turn them into reality. Because I couldn’t afford a coder, I started programming at this young age. To make the most of my pocket money and free time, I started to build the best possible MVP. A philosophy that needed over 15 years to become eminent.  

So what did I learn from all of that? Put progress over perfection, test and improve continuously and minimize your risk as early as you can. BE BOLD!

HOW COMMUNITIES CAN FOSTER AGILITY

To be agile by myself is not the only thing I’ve learned from my past. Because my parents were willing to fight for a safer life in Germany, they made sure that we as a family will reach the shared goal of understanding the system in Germany and thrive here. So I’ve learned from a very early age on how important it is to have team spirit, share a goal that ultimately served us all once we reached it. That is why, back in my teen life, I started asking friends whether they wanted to help me with my projects. Slowly I found my little tribe - we were about 20 people, learning how to code together, inviting experts to teach us new things and working on our own project idea really fast.

As we all started studying and moving to other cities we needed to stay flexible. Our big goal was to code a stock market game for students, so young people would learn how to invest in companies and trade stocks. So how did we overcome the distance and still made the app?

We had tons of Skype sessions and we managed to meet up twice a year in a coworking space we rented out for the night. We worked on this idea for more than three years! Over 30 people were in our team, some of us even lived outside of Germany. And we worked for free.

Why? Because being part of this amazing team was enough. After working together on an idea for years, I started seeing my team members as family.

If you ask me for the secret ingredient of agility, that’s it: Agility is fed by energy, fun and a culture that develops.

The stock market game became the biggest and most successful one in Germany. It’s played by tens of thousands of students every day. We reached our goal and we were very proud.

DRIVING BUSINESS-GROWTH THROUGH AGILITY

In today’s world some managers might not always know the way to innovation. Sometimes they can only hint to what exactly needs to be innovated and reimagined, but they can’t tell their coworkers HOW to actually go about it. This is where you, as a coworker, can really shine. It’s always been important to bring in new ideas and make sure people are not afraid to voice them. Agility is not just a trend. It’s one of the main reasons big companies even came to be in the first place.

I recently read the biography of Soichiro Honda, you know Honda - the car manufacturer from Japan? Honda deeply understood that human beings perform best not in isolation from each other but in relationships. He said „everyone needs to be part of the network“ and he aimed to establish an organization of people in human relationships that are transparent and frank. His ideals were passed on and sustained by later presidents and became on of the foundations of Honda’s organizational culture.

What struck me most when I read the story was the phrase „minimum rule“ as it is often used at Honda. It describes the tacit understanding that each and every employee has creative abilities. In product development, individual autonomy and creative freedom is respected and encouraged, based on the belief that freedom enhances creativity.

Soichiro tried to create an open-minded atmosphere in the organization, enabling free expression of ideas and acceptance of difference, based on the philosophy of Respect for the Individual and the belief that all human beings are equal and should be allowed to utilize their individual potential to the maximum. As a result, hierarchy is minimized to allow for open debates regardless of one’s position or specialty, contributing to the environment of creativity at Honda.

So my message for you: Agility is not a new trend or buzzword, but a relevant requirement in today’s business environment.

HOW WE AS A STARTUP ARE AGILE

At CoDesign Factory, my startup, which I have started with 3 other cofounders, we need to be agile every day. We simply cannot afford to spend so much time optimizing our process and not on our customers. So we need to evolve fast and how Mark Zuckerberg used to say „We need to go fast and break things“.

Agile management is a popular form of project management that dominates the world of software development, where I come from. Agile is certainly a great method for software development, but it can have a powerful impact on any startup, regardless of the startup’s nature, product or deliverable.

I want to give you four actionable tips for agile results that I learned through my startup.

  1. Don’t lose motivation by setting too big goals.
  2. Give your team members deadlines and take them seriously.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make changes and change direction.
  4. Scrum.

In conclusion: In order to survive in the business world, every big or small company needs to embrace Agility. Be bold. Come up with new ideas. Teach what you know. Change things. Don’t be afraid to fail. I am that girl that was standing on stage in front of over 60 investors and pitched something that sounded impossible to her. But you know what? It was worth it. Silicon Valley investors value people who think big and aren’t afraid to think out loud. That day I got a job offer from the CEO himself to come and work as their youngest Engineering Specialist at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.