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 with the introduction of agile in the early 2000s. Despite its humble beginnings — starting as a simple manifesto put forward by a group of software developers — early adopters took agile and ran with it. It offered an alternative to the slow-moving, heavyweight processes such as agile’s antithesis, the waterfall method. Agile workflows, and the speed and flexibility they brought 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 transformation of the agile manifesto 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 agile project management to 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 workflows go hand-in-hand with the digital-first era. 

What is an agile workflow?

The agile workflow is a philosophy that's all about team collaboration, flexibility, and iteration. It’s a response to the more rigid waterfall model of product development that became popular in the early days of software development.

In the waterfall model of project management, each stage of the development process must be completed before moving on to the next. Agile, on the other hand, allows for work to happen in short sprints or cycles with constant feedback and collaboration between leading agile teams. This results in a more flexible approach and a roadmap that can adapt as needs change.

An agile CMS supports an agile workflow by enabling content creators and marketers to quickly create and publish content without relying on IT or developers. This means content can be created and published faster, without sacrificing quality or functionality.

The lifecycle of an agile workflow

Applying agile principles, development is divided into short cycles or sprints. Each sprint has a specific goal and is typically two weeks long.

During each sprint, the development team works together to complete the tasks necessary to reach the goal. At the end of the sprint, the stakeholders review their progress and decide what to prioritize during the next sprint. 

This sprint planning and feedback loop may also include retrospectives about what worked and what didn’t, which allows for constant iteration and continuous improvement in the development cycle.

Pros and cons of agile workflows  

Like anything, agile workflows have their pros and cons. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of implementing an agile workflow:

Pros of agile workflows

Cons of agile workflows

Flexibility: Agile workflows are flexible, which means they can be adapted as needs change. This is a major advantage over the waterfall model, which is inflexible and can lead to delays if changes are needed.

Complexity: Agile workflows can be complex and require a lot of communication and coordination between team members.

Speed: Agile workflows are designed to be quick and streamline the workflow, helping you get product iterations to market faster. Kiss your product backlog goodbye!

Lack of documentation: Thorough documentation of project requirements and specs are often deprioritized for the sake of speed. 

Quality: By constantly reviewing and iterating on your product, you can make sure it meets quality standards before launch.

Overwork: Because the agile workflow process is designed to be quick, there is a risk of team members feeling overworked and burnt out.

Scope creep: If early or frequent changes are expected, agile workflows can help defend against scope creep by having locked in sprints during which no new items should be added. 

Budgeting: It can be challenging to stick to a planned budget because new ideas and features can always be identified for future iterations.

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 biannual launch. This allows teams to quickly turn out smaller products, fixes, or updates. Progress is measured in small steps — one little project or deliverable 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.

Ideas can come from anyone on any team involved in an agile workflow. Not only does this help organizations achieve more, solve problems faster, automate repetitive tasks, and generally produce better products, but it also helps team members feel more connected to a project’s vision.

Agile workflows 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 conception to 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 with it factors like supply, demand, costs, and pricing. If you can’t be flexible and adapt, then you’re looking at a lot of wasted work. Withagile workflows and software, 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 methods

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, customer satisfaction, 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 favorite tools, integrations, 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. 

Sign up for a free Contentful account and start building today.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Do you want to learn more about agile methodology? Here are some helpful answers to start you on the right track.

What are the types of agile workflows?

There are many types of agile frameworks, but some of the most common are Kanban, Scrum, lean software development, and test-driven development (TDD). 

Are scrum and agile the same thing?

Scrum is a type of agile workflow. Agile is an overarching term that describes a set of principles and values for software development.

What are the stages of an agile workflow?

The stages of an agile workflow are typically ideation, inception, iteration, release, production, and retirement.

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