How to be as agile as Silicon Valley's best

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Being “agile” is about more than imitating a process or best practice. Silicon Valley, like the great cities that have come before — think Athens, Glasgow and Vienna, is more than the sum of its rituals. It has fortuitously aligned its culture, talent and incentives with what is required in the digital world. What makes Silicon Valley agile in other words, is a mindset, a way of approaching business, and this is something that can be done anywhere.

What made Silicon Valley agile

Silicon Valley has evolved considerably over the past decades. This is a sign both of the very agility the rest of us crave, as well as a driving force in making it necessary. The region has changed from one largely defined by ties to defence contractors and Stanford university; from actually manufacturing the physical components of the technological revolution, to designing and building on top of them. Silicon Valley has moved up the stack — concerning itself now mostly with the lucrative digital layer than with the commodified infrastructure that undergirds it all.

It’s this transition in product that explains a lot of what has made the valley agile. Moving from manufacturing physical products, from designing and building computer chips — where the Silicon Valley moniker comes from; to designing and building software, requires a complete rethink of the relationship between product, customer, business, employer and employee. Physical items have long lead times and are generally “finished” once they go out the door. Software, especially the kind deployed online, is never finished. It is constantly being debugged, tweaked and improved upon.

This is why the new giants of Silicon Valley are less top-down than the big companies of the past. You can’t build and constantly iterate something like Facebook by having your engineers walled off from your designers, your “decision makers” separated from workers by huge bureaucracies, or huge departments at war with each other. This new world requires fresh thinking about the whole company structure.

A lot of what makes Google so valuable is precisely because it was a different company. Allowing its employees to experiment, for example, is a big reason a huge product like Gmail exists. The company hires for and actively encourages loads of new ideas, and has built a structure composed of many little teams, allowing it to pursue many ideas at the same time, and fast — building something in as little as a few weeks for testing.

It’s more than project management

These new modes of working have come with methodologies to help businesses get projects done fast, like Scrum and the Agile Movement. Although varying slightly, these new methods of developing products have many similarities — relying on small teams setting small goals and working to tight deadlines. They borrow from and were born out of the culture that made Silicon Valley giants so successful. But simply applying the methodologies of the best, without also looking at the underlying structure, is not a recipe for success.

To be as truly agile as Silicon Valley’s best requires emulating all of what makes these methodologies successful, to birth new ideas. A horizontal business structure, empowering employees to challenge the status quo. A culture that accompanies this — rewarding employees for innovation rather than conformity. Hiring practices that emphasise self-starters, as well as a diversity of thought, experience and skills. A willingness to experiment, fail and learn from those ideas. Tracking what has been done and what is left, as well as what could be done better. Crowdsourcing ideas and feedback.

Amalgamating all of these facets has made Silicon Valley agile, and it could work the same for you.

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