The Real Secret to Being Agile

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Agility, the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

These days everyone wants to be agile. Big or small company people are looking for the “startup mentality”.

Many think it’s the corporate culture. Others think it’s the process how we create things that matters.

In this article I am going to talk about agility and self-reliance. About how you can incorporate agility in your professional career.

Why is agile so important?

Historically development is practiced as a hard defined process. You think of something, specify it, have it developed and then built in mass production.

It’s a bit of an arrogant process. You assume that you already know exactly what a customer wants. Or how a product has to look and how everything works out.

The problem is that the world does not work this way!

Often times the circumstances change because of internal factors.

Sometimes things just do not work out as planned or stuff is harder than you think.

You need to adapt.

Other times you find out that you build something customers do not like and need to be changed.

You need to adapt.

That’s why people jump on the Scrum train. Because Scrum is the definition of agile development, right?

Is it the method making a difference?

Yes, Scrum or Google’s OKR can help to be more agile. The secret to being agile however, is not only how you create.

What makes me cringe is people try to tell you that being agile starts in your head. So, the problem is you?


The biggest lesson I have learned over the past years is this: Agility goes down the drain when you outsource work.

The problem with outsourcing

I know on paper outsourcing seems like a no brainer: Development costs against the fixed costs.

It is expensive to bind existing resources on a task. It is even more expensive if you need to hire new employees.

The problem with outsourcing is that you pay someone to build stuff for you.

It does not matter who you pay to do something for you. He needs to make money.

His agenda will be to spend as less time as possible on your work. That is why outsourcing requires contracts, detailed specifications, timetables and delivery dates.

He doesn’t want to spend additional time on a project, only because you want changes in the middle. Every unplanned change costs him time and therefore money.

If so, you need to make another detailed specification and a contract change.

He is not going to put his mind into improving the product while developing. Firstly because he does not have the big picture. Secondly because he does not want to.

He is doing as he is told.

Who can blame him? If I was the subcontractor I would do exactly the same!

Does this sound agile to you?

Knowledge is King: A lesson from Elon Musk

Doing everything in house, that’s why startups are so productive. No time is wasted on waiting for someone else.

If something does not work, or needs to be changed, there is someone in the team who can do it right away.                        .

One very prominent example who follows this strategy is Elon Musk.

Tesla’s Gigafactories are designed to get raw materials in on one side and spit out cars on the other. Why do you think Tesla is building Gigafactories who cost a lot of money?

Why is SpaceX building its one space engines? Clearly there are other, older, companies who could do that for them.

Why is Elon building tunnel boring machines at his new boring company?

At first glance this makes no sense!

How you can really be agile

If you look closer it all comes down to control and knowledge. You, your team, your company, needs to as much as possible on your own. Self-reliance is king.

Build up your knowledge and therefore the teams knowledge. When you have the ability to do everything yourself, you are in full control.

You can build electric cars, rocket engines or bore tunnels.

Don’t largely rely on others and be confident to just do stuff on your own.

Dream big and JUST DO IT!

PS. Don’t get me wrong. You can still outsource work. Just do it in a smart way by outsourcing small independent parts.

What is your experience agility and outsourcing? Tell me and the community in the comment section below.

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Cover photo by Jacob Miller on Unsplash

Comments 4

  1. Interesting article. I work in IT for a large investment bank where work is not just subcontracted but outsourced to India.

    The result is a project that insists its agile and yet produces reams of Requirements Specifications, Functional Specs, Design Specs and Test specs.

    To make matters worse (and perhaps partly the reason for this confluence of waterfalls), the project is globally distributed in Singapore, India (two cities), Poland, London, Switzerland and USA.

    I’ve worked on COBOL programming tasks that were more agile than this in the mid 1980s.

    The logical, “cost reducing” (cost multiplying!) extension of sub-contracting an entire project is outsourcing parts of it to “low cost” locations. Freeze any agility with voluminous incomprehensible documents and specifications, and conduct all meetings by telephone and Skype for business.

    Please! Let’s stop this total madness.

  2. I take a little exception to the line “It’s a bit of an arrogant process. You assume that you already know exactly what a customer wants. Or how a product has to look and how everything works out.”
    That’s what requirement specs and customer involvement are for. If you don’t involve the customer, chances are you’ll produce something that they don’t want.

    1. Post

      Exactly. The problem is that the customer often doesn’t know the perfect solution either.
      I know this from the experience of being the customer myself.

  3. Refreshing to read this point of view. In my opinion, the only bit about “joining the scrum” (eg adopting an agile methodology) that really makes a difference is having a ringfenced team working on nothing but the delivery. That level of focus brings everyone together, all owning the same goal and collaboration is almost guaranteed.
    Sadly, it’s the bit of agile which a lot of big companies fail to adopt!

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