Agile and Lean principles were once radical concepts. Now they are almost mundane through repetition in startup communities around the world. Big business is not deaf to these changes. Larger companies are keen to apply Lean and Agile ideas to gain some of the high-growth advantages of startups.

What started in academic circles, perfected using numerous studies, trial and error, has become a set of working principles for technology, software and startup companies. Where innovation thrives, you are sure to find a few books on Lean and Agile concepts. Not only books, but there are hundreds of articles online, meetups, groups and companies that promote the real-world application of Agile ideas.

Instead of prolonged and expensive phases of research and development (R&D), through Agile, software developers, are encouraged to test theories with potential customers, learn from those experiences and make improvements. Although Lean – worth using alongside Agile – can be applied to a wide variety of operational functions, including sales, marketing and customer service. Agile, on the other hand, is specific to software development. It has a manifesto.

Startups and software firms can apply these principles fairly easily. Larger companies, on the other hand, can struggle. In this article, we ask why and seek to understand how big companies can gain the same high-growth advantages as startups, albeit with the resources that should make scaling easier for them.

What prevents Agile success in larger companies?

1. Weak vision, no strategy

In startups, innovation isn’t a luxury. It is a necessity. You innovate, ship software, generate revenue, or you die. It’s that simple.

Not in larger companies. Market share and strong revenue is built over time. This gives them the luxury of innovating at a pace they set unless market forces require faster action, which is sometimes the reason for jumping on the Agile bandwagon.

New ideas or processes take time to take hold in an organisation. Cultural mindsets that don’t easily change. Innovation that can cause disruption, services or processes don’t readily gain acceptance, even when it could get a company closer to a larger strategic goal.

Without a clear vision and senior support, applying Agile principles may not go very far. It is perhaps one of the reasons global brands have been keen to support startup accelerators, invest in and buy startups, wrapping them into innovation-focused divisions. That is one way to absorb Agile, Lean and other practical principles that create outsized value for smaller organisations; but it’s not the only way.

2. An aversion to collaboration

Startups often have remote team members, or even operate on a completely remote model. It doesn’t stop them innovating. In the early days, you don’t have that many people to interact with, so you can work together fairly easily, solve problems, and maintain an Agile approach when developing new software.

Not in a larger organisation. Colleagues and team members can be spread across different departments and offices. Working together in an Agile group, especially a fragmented one is more challenging.

When an Agile project is considered a priority, Agile can be implemented effectively. When something is important, then it should receive visibility, time and resources to make collaboration easier for everyone involved.

3. An over-reliance on legacy processes

According to the ninth State of Agile survey by VersionOne, “42 percent of participants noted that their company culture was at odds with core agile values, and 37 percent felt pressure to follow traditional waterfall processes.”

Agile demands faster release cycles and continuous development, which means resources need to be deployed to make it work. In response to the survey, Agile Alliance said that “Understanding that agile impacts organizational values and facilitating that transformation is the first step to having a broader adoption of agile, and more success with agile as a means to successful delivery.”

Key Takeaways: How can large companies apply Agile

  • Start with a small team. Test and witness what’s involved, how to succeed and fail when Agile principles are applied.
  • Understand that cultural changes are needed. Unless you are a highly innovative organisation, known for radical new thinking, then you may need to accept that large companies can’t adopt startup ideas without some cultural mindset and attitude shifts.
  • Ensure Agile can spread to larger teams, other departments and countries with high-level support and resources. Without both, Agile experiments will stay small scale, as will the results.
  • Once adoption is taking hold, remove the reliance on legacy principles and development models. Make room so that innovation can thrive.