In 2001, a new approach to technology development was created by a daring group of developers. Called Agile, the process put customers at the center of product development, encouraged rapid prototyping, and dramatically increased corporate speed and agility.
While Agile began as a product development innovation, it sparked a corporate strategy and process revolution. Agile development laid the intellectual groundwork for the Lean movement in entrepreneurship, which further pushed business leaders to organize their business model and product development work around a series of experiments, testing critical hypothesis along the way. Agile and Lean initially grew popular in the startup world, but soon were embraced by mainstream business leaders around the globe. GE famously implemented Lean methodologies throughout all of their divisions, helping reduce cycle time and better aligning their work with the customers’ needs, leading to then-CEO Jeff Immelt’s declaration that GE had transformed from a “classic conglomerate… to a 125-year-old startup.”
Today, leading companies are embracing a new business process methodology. Once again, it has started in the bowels of technology companies and startups. And, once again, business leaders would do well to pay close attention to the strategic implications.
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The methodology is Continuous Development, which, like agile, began as a software development methodology. Rather than improving software in one large batch, updates are made continuously, piece-by-piece, enabling software code to be delivered to customers as soon as it is completed and tested. Companies that can successfully implement Continuous Development throughout their organization will find dramatic strategic benefits, including:
- Faster time-to-market. Customers enjoy the benefit of new features sooner. And developers receive customer feedback on their features faster, leading to better features that more accurately meet customer needs.
- Run more experiments. Frequent releases allow companies to continuously experiment with new features and test them on different audiences. In some cases, new features are deployed in the code and turned on or off for a particular customer segment by using a simple feature flag.
- Fix errors faster. Because software code is released in smaller batches, it is easier to identify the source of any problems. “It’s easier to understand the consequences of a change if you’re making lots of little steps,” observes Bryan Stevenson, CIO of on-demand software company Catalant.
- Maximize engineering productivity. Engineers love continuous delivery environments because they can immediately see how their work adds value to the organization. And that satisfaction leads to a more attractive work environment in a competitive talent market. As Inessa Lurye, former head of product at Maxwell Health, points out “Continuous delivery is one of the more contemporary engineering practices that attracts high quality engineers.”
The case of healthcare technology firm athenahealth is an instructive one. Founded in 1997, the company deployed large batches of changes to its application each month to its entire customer base for many years. By 2016, clients dreaded the disruptive monthly releases such that one large client had to deploy a 70-person crisis management team to manage the fallout of each monthly release. When new CTO Prakash Khot arrived from Salesforce, he shifted the company towards continuous delivery, testing changes more frequently and on smaller audiences. The result has been a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction and a great boost to internal morale.
When Facebook was founded in 2004, the company embraced the agile software delivery methodology to ensure that code was shipped as quickly as possible. The organization evolved into a weekly release cycle, responding quickly to the market and the competition. But by 2016, the engineering team struggled to support the scale of the weekly releases, which involved an unwieldy 8,000 to 14,000 software changes and took up to 14 hours to deploy to production. In 2017, Facebook transitioned to a continuous delivery model. By August 2017, it took an average of 3.5 hours for an engineer’s code to be deployed in production and the company hoped to reduce that figure to two hours in 2018.
Continuous Development is a growing trend in the software industry. And for good reason: it represents a more effective method for software development in order to achieve both external and internal objectives. Various estimates and surveys suggest that as many as 20% of software professionals are using some form of it. Business executives at companies large and small would be wise to embrace this new methodology and even push their organizations to adopt this more flexible, powerful technique to develop technology products. The insight here for business executives is that continuous delivery is more than just an obscure software development methodology being discussed in the bowels of your IT department. It represents an important competitive advantage and cultural weapon in the battle for talent and customer loyalty.