Agile workflows in the digital-first era: Here’s why it works

An illustration of a person working on a laptop, surrounded by a depiction of an agile workflow.
November 18, 2020

Jo Fraser



It’s not every day that the way we work is completely overhauled, but that’s exactly what happened when agile was introduced in the early 2000s. Despite agile’s humble beginnings –– it started as four simple principles put forward by a group of software developers –– early adopters took it and ran. It offered an alternative to the slow-moving hierarchical processes such as agile’s nemesis, the waterfall method. Agile, and the speed and flexibility it bought to organizational processes, got digital products quickly out the door.

While it took a few years, what happened next was beyond what even the original agile founders could have predicted. Agile exploded into enterprises –– including Apple, IBM and Microsoft –– resulting in the simple agile manifesto transforming into something you need a textbook to understand. There are now thousands of articles, TED talks, courses, books, and consultants shilling agile as the be-all-end-all solution to your problems. 

What started off as a disruptive trend, morphed into a normal way of working, at least for digitally transformed companies. It became so prevalent, and twisted by marketers and people wanting to make a buck, that one of the founders of the agile manifesto disowned the term completely. 

With agile being everywhere –– go ahead and Google “applying the agile methodology to your housework,” you’ll get more than one result –– can we still trust it in our companies? Has it been overhyped? In the digital-first era, is it still applicable in a demanding market? Well, yes, no, and yes. We’re still big fans of agile here at Contentful and we use it ourselves. Here’s why we think agile goes hand-in-hand with the digital-first era. 

The digital-first era needs speed. Agile delivers.

The digital-first era refers to a new phase where companies are putting their digital customer interactions first. This marks a change from businesses prioritizing in-person customer interactions like brick-and-mortar stores. As you can imagine, this comes with a whole new set of customer expectations. It’s no longer enough to have two or three big product or promotional launches a year. Now, customers expect almost constant contact through a range of digital channels. So how does the agile methodology work to make this achievable? 

Agile works by breaking down the barriers of getting new products to customers quickly. It does this in a few ways. Agile fosters a collaborative, creative environment where teams work together on one product or project instead of an annual or bi-annual launch. This allows teams to quickly turn out smaller products, fixes or updates. Progress is measured in small steps –– one little project at a time. Agile then takes it a step further by encouraging quick iteration cycles. 

Another merit of agile is the unified workplace. Unlike previous ways of working where teams were segmented by their roles, agile harnesses collective intelligence by encouraging cross-functional teams. This means teams are achieving more, solving problems faster, and generally producing better, more well-rounded products.

Agile and the digital builder: A perfect pair

Both agile and the digital-first era celebrate motivated individuals. Agile puts individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It asks you to give power back to the individual so they can build projects without too much corporate interference. How? By giving them the environment, authority, and support they need to carry a project from beginning to end. This includes removing any barriers such as corporate approval, and giving them the funding, planning and resources they need. 

As for these motivated individuals, we like to call them digital builders. Digital builders are the people who define the digital-first era. They are usually the ones with the ideas who can envision a project from it’s conception to it’s launch.  

Agile as preparation for uncertainty 

The digital-first era brings with it a lot of uncertainty. Human behavior is hard to predict. Fifteen years ago we couldn’t predict the share economy with companies like Uber and Airbnb being industry leaders. While we can guess at some of the digital products coming our way –– VR and AI being two big ones –– there is so much we can’t predict. With traditional methods of working, this uncertainty often leads to big projects being scrapped and rebuilt. The market changes quickly, and if you can’t be flexible and adapt then you’re looking at a lot of wasted work. With agile, and the right extensible tech, you can quickly pivot and iterate. This will help you deliver real value to customers.

Your competition is probably using agile 

If there’s one thing to take away from the digital-first era, it’s that it is highly competitive. With so much competition, you need to meet customer needs faster, and with relevant, timely content –– before a competitor beats you to it. Agile can be a massive boost to the things that matter: time to market, exceptional digital experiences, and organizational health.  

Contentful’s extensible and flexible content platform is the perfect tool for agile development. For starters, we have the app marketplace which allows you to add your favourite tools and services to the platform. It’s also perfect for agile teams. Developers and content creators can work simultaneously on the same product at the same time. 

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