Many organizations watch the well-known tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple and see with envy, how these companies continuously innovate and quickly adapt to changing market circumstances. At the same time, other companies struggle to improve their speed to market. Agility is an approach that has been successfully used by technology companies for several years. It enables companies to both stay nimble and flexible like start-ups but also being able to scale-up and grow.
Although agility started as a practice within the tech space, to gain the full benefit, it needs to be implemented across the whole organization. The ultimate goal is to enable organizations to quicker innovate, that is to bring improved products and services to the market. This includes a quick iteration on developing hypotheses, testing them in the market place, collecting feedback, and adapting the hypotheses. An agile approach can help organizations of any size to achieve this goal.
What is agility?
Agility is based on the agile manifesto (http://agilemanifesto.org). In short, this manifesto gives clear priorities of:
Agility is not a fixed ruleset but rather a mindset and an approach to organizational structures and processes. As such, the implementation will be different for every company. Two key components of any agile implementation are the focus on pushing decisions towards the people who are closest to the problem, and the active use of feedback loops to continuously improve both processes and outcomes.
Requirements to implement agility
The success of any agile implementation heavily depends on self-organized, cross-functional teams. The role of management in such an environment is different than in classical, more hierarchical organizations. In an agile world, the role of management is to clearly articulate a vision and a goal for the team. This can also include the definition of business-relevant KPIs and the definition of general frameworks.
The teams are self-organized and cross-functional. This means that the teams will define how to move towards the goal, which steps to take, and also how to split the work within the team. Most if not all of the decisions required to reach the goal will also be taken by the teams. The teams will use short iteration cycles that quickly generate output (very often directly delivered to the customer), and will use the feedback to ensure that they are on-track towards the goal. Since the agile approach requires a different management mindset, it is important that senior management actively supports the implementation.
How to implement agility
Since agility is a change process that includes the role of the management function, it needs to be a well supported change process. As such it makes sense to have agile leadership training for the managements teams. These trainings are relevant not only for the leaders of the directly involved teams but also for other functions that have direct interaction with agile teams or are dependent on their output. Leaders need to understand that agile teams work differently, and the role and influence of leaders towards self-organized teams is different than in classical organizations.
The implementation of agility is a change process. As such, it is important to start with a small group. Ideally, they would have a contained topic. These teams need to be cross-functional and should be collocated for easy communication. Also, team members need to be 100% dedicated to this team. In essence, the team needs to establish a group identity. They will also need an agile coach that can help establish an agile base and helps the team setup the crucial feedback loops and foundation processes.
The implementation of agile will need time. As each agile team works differently, depending both on the team composition but also on the topic, it needs some initial time for the team to find the best mode of operation. Once established, the team will be able to quickly iterate and improve. But this means that during the initial phase of a few weeks to months, the team should be given as much autonomy and space as possible. Once the teams are established and in a working mode, the benefits of agile will become transparent. One of the first benefits will be the ability of the teams to improve their own processes very quickly – don’t expect stable processes early on!
During the implementation of agile phase it is very important that communication channels are established and used. You cannot over-communicate during this phase. Typical communication channels include:
Make these communication channels as public as possible. For example, move the regular stand-ups into hallways and invite interested parties to listen-in!
For a successful implementation of agility it also is important that people have a shared understanding of the underlying topics that agility addresses. Furthermore, it helps if there is a shared language across the organization. One way to achieve this is to find a book or article that expresses the main ideas, and share this with a broad audience.
Once the initial team is up-and-running, you can start the further rolling-out of agility. Usually, the next step would be to roll-out agility horizontal, that is towards teams with similar products or functions.
A last step is the vertical roll-out of agility. Very often, agility starts within the development function. Often, the roll-out first includes a product owner that has know-how of the business requirements. As a next step, operations is included. Following this, the agile approach spreads towards business functions. Product owners become more-and-more relevant to better understand business requirements. Also, their role changes from implementing functions as required by the business, towards being the ones to actively engage with the business to develop hypotheses that are then tested by the teams.
Can IT be agile in a non-agile environment?
For many people outside IT, the IT function is seen as a black box. So – at least at the start of agile implementation – IT can implement agile practice just within IT. Just be mindful to remember, that IT still needs to maintain its interfaces towards other functions and company-wide processes. This can work very successful in the beginning, as the roll-out of agile is not dependent on a company-wide agreement on agile, or a company-wide change program.
Sooner or later, however, IT will hit constraints when dealing with the rest of the organization. For example, this could be decision processes, that take hours and days within the agile world, and that take weeks and months outside. Once this happens, IT should engage in a dialogue with the larger organization, to see if the organization wants to adapt agile as a whole. At this point in time, IT will not only have theoretical benefits of agile but will already be able to show real benefits within the existing organization. These examples are much more powerful than any textbook examples, as they demonstrate how agile can deliver benefit in this concrete organization.
Agility is a practice that can help organization to speed-up and become more innovative. There is no process description for an implementation of agile, instead agile is a mindset and an approach. An implementation of agile should start in small, self-contained teams before being rolled-out towards the IT and the organization as a whole.
About the author:
Steffen Heilmann is Senior VP IT at MYTOYS GROUP. Together with his team, he is responsible for the operation and further development of the entire IT for one of the most successful e-commerce companies in Germany. Previously, Steffen was an IT executive at Allianz for many years and acted as a strategic business consultant at The Boston Consulting Group.