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Better Collaboration in 3 Steps

Engineers use the Agile method to build software more efficiently. You can use it to run your company more efficiently.
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Want to increase collaboration across your team and your company? Wish you could get your employees talking to each other and sharing ideas? Try borrowing a strategy from the world of software development.

Executives used to meet with techies to lay out requirements and await a finished product months or sometimes years later. Now more and more engineers build software using the Agile methodology, in which new versions are released every two weeks, with new features and fixes added each time. Executives meet with developers at each release. Agile turns out to be a pretty good way to run a company, too.

When Robert Holler, CEO of VersionOne, which provides software for Agile project management, decided to apply that same philosophy to his entire business, he found it was an effective way to get everyone working together and innovating more quickly.

The Agile manifesto prefers "individuals and interactions over processes and tools" and "responding to change over following a plan." And while VersionOne started out using Agile to create its products, "As we've set up the company and grown to 100 folks, we use it all the way through our infrastructure," Holler says.

The foundation of the Agile method is regular team meetings and daily check-ins, and that makes all the difference at VersionOne, Holler says. Here's how it works:

1. Create regular "touch points." 

The key to agility is "well-defined, disciplined touch points" among team members, Holler says. "If you have a rhythm set up where individuals communicate daily, teams weekly or every two weeks, and the company monthly, just that simple rhythm creates a team of teams."

So at VersionOne, small teams, such as the four-person marketing department meet at the start of each day. Larger, cross-functional teams meet every time a new software "iteration" is released, which is to say every two weeks. "In that iteration review, team members associated with the product identify issues and opportunities," Holler says. After that, the entire product team gets together to discuss whether they are making progress toward company goals and whether they're on schedule.

Then, once a month, the entire company comes together for an update on performance and goals. And the executive team meets every quarter to set goals for the coming quarter.

With all those reviews, "We're forced to sync up," Holler says. "That rhythm makes us highly efficient."

2. Keep meetings short.

One reason for that efficiency is that each of these meetings has a clear agenda and a strict time limit. "They range from 5 minutes to 40 minutes and rarely do we go over that," Holler says. The daily team meetings, for instance, last only 10 to 15 minutes, and are called "stand-ups" because they're conducted while standing. The monthly business presentations total only an hour, though there's also time for lunch and a fun activity such as pool.

3. Eliminate unneeded communications.

It may sound like this quantity of meetings would take up a lot of time, but Holler says it actually saves time by eliminating unneeded communications. No need to write an email telling your teammates about a new customer when you know you'll have the chance to tell them face to face tomorrow morning. And there's little need to schedule meetings with colleagues when you know you'll be attending a meeting together anyhow within the next week or month. "Communication just flows through our organization," Holler says. Instead of saying "I'm working on this task," people say, "I'm working on this task which supports this initiative with the help of this other department in pursuit of this goal."

4. Be ready to change course quickly.

An Agile operation can respond to changing market conditions and opportunities much faster. That's what happened recently when a new visual display showing the interdependencies of elements in a project turned out to be an unexpectedly popular feature of VersionOne's product. "We weren't sure what the acceptance would be," Holler says. But when downloads rose dramatically, the company made a quick decision to highlight the new feature in its online product demonstrations.

"We didn't have that in our marketing plan," Holler says. But because the company was meeting regularly with communication flowing in all directions, everyone at VersionOne knew about the new feature's success. "We got together, understood the priority and value of this feature, so we raised those items above others in the queue and other things fell off the table. It happened without a lot of muss and fuss."

Without Agile, the company could never have changed directions so quicky, he adds. "We'd have had a change control board and they would never have understood."

Last updated: Feb 27, 2013

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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