Becoming Agile - It’s not easy - Agility Digital
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Becoming Agile – It’s not easy

With many, if not most companies having a digital transformation programme, “becoming agile” in the delivery of business change is often a stated ambition. Traditional companies look towards the Amazons, Facebooks and Netflixs and aspire to benefit from the innovation, agility, pace and continuous evolution and change that is the hallmark of these Tech giants.

Agile is of course a software development methodology but the values and principles which underpin it are increasingly being applied to business change, particularly when it is enabled by technology (and these days which business change isn’t).

There is a lot of mythology around agile and its effectiveness – “an excuse for not having a plan”, “continually changing requirements”, “no need for documentation”. Done badly these assertions are likely to be true. Done well agile delivers working capability quickly, meets customer needs and gives the ability to adapt as your organisation learns more and better understands the problems it is trying to solve. However, one thing is clear from the multiple stories of failed attempts – becoming agile and doing it well is not easy.

The 4 values which underpin Agile are:

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  • working software over comprehensive documentation;
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and.
  • responding to change over following a plan.

How companies interpret and implement these in delivering change is where things go well, or not. To become successfully agile in delivering business change, in my view, a company needs to focus on:

  • Creating small, highly capable, multidisciplinary teams which collaborate effectively. Imposing a set of processes and tools is no replacement for capability, knowledge and joint problem solving.
  • Producing a working capability (with or without technology and even if initially as a series of small changes) that can be demonstrated, observed, critiqued and improved is more important than spending time writing detailed requirements and assumptions which in themselves change nothing.
  • Ultimately improving the customer proposition or value delivered should be what it is all about. Co-creation with your customers not only leads to better outcomes – it boosts engagement and buy-in.
  • Being clear about the outcomes you wish to achieve is essential, how they get achieved needs to be flexible. Taking small steps, collecting data and measuring, getting feedback from the team, the employees in your organisation and customers and then to change direction accordingly will lead to better outcomes. How often have you heard “if I knew at the beginning what I know now, I wouldn’t have started from there”. The right answer is often different from initial expectations.

Achieving a transition to Agile in a conventional corporate business requires you to look at Leadership, Culture, Mindset and Capability.

Leadership. Agile needs to be led from the very top of the organisation. That means not simply endorsing it but investing time in understanding it, actively participating, empowering teams and rethinking corporate governance structures and decision rights. A team is not empowered if it can’t make decisions. Leaders need to consider the role they play and how they can best support an agile organisation to make its own decisions. 

Culture.  Ownership of the change needs to sit in the business units. If the senior leaders have given up their decision rights in order to empower the organisation, business units need to step up, take accountability and make decisions. This is often particularly challenging. To do this effectively joint ownership of change by multi-disciplinary teams, with a shared voice and true collaboration is essential.

In a world of continuous change and improvement organisations need to shift from a project to a product culture. There is no project end date, what has been created is a product which needs to be continuously monitored for performance and continuously improved. In doing this actively work with your customers, don’t assume you understand their challenges, share your plans, take input, go on the journey together and share the benefits.

Mindset. If the ambition is to transform, then you need to be bold and ambitious. A few percentage points improvement may produce a great looking business case with an attractive ROI however this is not transformation. Aim to automate or improve sales by 100% not 10%.

It is essential that you are willing to dispense with conventional thinking and ruthlessly simplify. I contend that the majority of business processes in their traditional form are not there for genuinely good reasons. They are simply the consequence of many compromises and work arounds due to lack of capability at particular points in time.

Break a problem down and deliver the change incrementally – look for value, prioritise, deliver at pace with urgency and build confidence.

Capability. As if the foregoing isn’t tough enough this bit really is the hardest. Be honest about your capability. Becoming agile and transforming takes high levels of human capability to analyse a problem, understand the art of the possible, provide creative solutions, collaborate and share without compromise and be intelligently bold (and don’t be afraid to get it wrong – learn – adapt and move forward).

Being agile is really not easy and before you begin, be sure to build a high calibre, highly capable team.

Whilst becoming agile may not be easy I firmly believe it is an essential component of transforming an existing business, otherwise the problems and opportunities that are faced today are simply too big to conquer quickly and effectively.