In this column, Coursera President and Co-founder Daphne Koller asks Alex Cowan, faculty and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, to share this thoughts on how teams across a variety of industries can benefit from the cross-collaborative methods of agile. Cowan helped create Coursera's Agile Development Specialization.

When most people hear "agile development," they picture hoodie-wearing coders talking sprints and daily scrums. That is, if they've heard of it at all.

But in the 15 years since the agile manifesto was first published by a group of forward-thinking developers, agile has evolved from focusing on project management to a full-blown movement for driving innovation across companies. Its core principles have inspired the current go-to managerial style for business innovators, influencing everything from The Lean Startup to workplace culture at companies such as Salesforce and Spotify.

To learn more about agile's evolution, I sat down with Alex Cowan, faculty and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, who teaches entrepreneurs and MBAs to be digital innovators by adopting software design principles. He explained why the agile revolution is only just getting started and why it's applicable at all levels of an organization--whether you're an entry-level employee or CEO.

What's the best (and most buzzword-free) way to explain what, exactly, is agile?

Agile's a term for a loose set of ideas and practices that all tie back to the Agile Manifesto. It's an open letter aimed at helping developers create better software by rethinking the way they work-- emphasizing values like collaboration, swift response to change and product designed with the user in mind. And since then, it's really proven itself as a way to drive valuable outcomes for software developers and everyone they work with.

Why should people who aren't software developers care about it?

Well, its success in software development has encouraged a lot of innovative thinkers to implement it across teams, even non-technical ones, as a way to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and work in a way that's anchored to valuable outcomes. Developer-focused techniques (like Extreme Programming) won't apply to everyone, but almost any department can learn from the bigger picture principles of agile, like responding to change and focusing on testable narratives about the user. Agile's focused on coming up with the right goal, identifying how each team can contribute towards that goal, then having those teams test out ideas until they get it right.

So what would, say, an agile marketing approach look like?

It actually works great for marketers, which is important because there's a lot of bad, non-user focused marketing out there! While developers work toward a software product, marketers work toward an outcome from their messaging (through a commercial, press release or social media campaign). An agile way of carrying this out might include digging into customer stories that highlight what an audience is looking for, identifying what constitutes a valuable outcome and how to assess it, and then testing different approaches.

Let's talk a little bit about teamwork and communication. I see these "soft skills" becoming more and more important as businesses move away from traditional, "top-down" management styles. Do you agree?

Definitely. With organizational siloes dying out in favor of interdisciplinary teams, collaborating to reach a common goal and learning to work effectively with teammates is critical to getting the innovative outcomes everyone wants. And remember, good teamwork isn't just about being nice--that's important, but you also need to learn how to engage others in the right way and create a shared understanding of what constitutes success. That's one thing I love about the Coursera course I'm teaching right now--I get to help business folks think like designers, and they walk away with a better understanding of how to work with their teammates, which leads to improved interdisciplinary collaboration.

You've advised plenty of startups. What's the most important thing CEOs and founders can do to foster an agile-inspired culture of innovation?

The number one thing leaders should do is provide focus and coherence, and then break down the objectives of the firm in a way that's actionable for the individual teams, letting them self-organize to achieve those objectives. That's not going to feel safe to the leader, but neither is the status quo in most cases. On a practical level, the best way to do this is to create team charters that focus on an actionable, measurable problem and then let the teams self-organize to solve it. When you measure progress, look at the outcomes and the quality of the experimentation, but avoid prescribing the approach. For example, let's say you have a company that makes a dating app and there's a team specifically focused on the messaging part of that system. A good team charter for them might be something like: We're focused on facilitating and improving communication between our users. If the company was focused on increasing engagement, this team might measure the quality of its outcomes by changes in the level of correspondence between users and the depth (quantity) of that communication. It's important to create a culture of experimentation where people aren't afraid to get creative and take risks, even if it might not work out perfectly the first time.

I'm curious to hear your take on what agile can't do. What's something people often misunderstand about it?

The biggest is [the expectation] that it's a singular, universal fix. It's a well-developed but loosely affiliated body of work. The principles are easy to understand, but then it's a lot of work to select the practices you want to use and diligently test and improve them until they're creating the environment and outcomes you want.

It's not going to feel like 'Hey, now my job is easy.' It's probably going to feel like 'Man, this is hard,' but you'll be driving much more valuable outcomes and those should be visible to you after a few months. That's the reward.

As agile continues to explode in popularity, what are some of the roadblocks and opportunities you see on the horizon?

When agile gets co-opted by the kind of siloed, bureaucratic systems it aims to fix, it fails. A lot of businesses--including startups--adopt agile because they think of it as nothing more than a systematic approach to optimizing day-to-day operations. But if your train is headed towards a cliff, it won't matter how efficiently you can shovel coal into the engine.

On the other hand, if you embrace agile not as just a structure, but as a philosophy that can help shape both how you run your business and link that to your overarching goals, then you'll find your business will foster innovation in a way you previously couldn't have imagined.

I think the big opportunity for agile is to be a kind of workhorse for applied innovation. Everyone today is hearing from their boss that the firm needs to innovate. Then they need to go out and figure out how to do that. They hear they need to do design thinking, customer development, Lean Startup, focus on UX and human-centered design--it's overwhelming. And faced with so many choices they often do what we all do with too many choices--nothing or at least not that much. The nice thing about agile is that while it's anchored in principles, there are well-developed methodologies you can use and they are very amenable to the systematic implementation of those innovation techniques. That's what's exciting to me about agile right now.