Comment: Make your business more agile, one step at a time
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There are undoubted benefits to expanding agile techniques beyond the IT department, but careful planning is essential.
Agile working was born out of software development. It was developed and refined by tech teams as a way of working that sped delivery to market. But now it’s been adopted much more widely, with great success. Recent research carried out by PA Consulting on organisational agility found the top 10 per cent of businesses by financial performance are almost 30 per cent more likely to display agile characteristics.
This is good news for business, and very good news for IT professionals. There’s a big opportunity for tech teams to use their skills and experience to help other teams thrive and grow. And it’s needed: two-thirds of business leaders are concerned their company is better at delivering business as usual, rather than radical transformation.
But while there’s appetite for change among business leaders, traditional IT-driven approaches alone won’t make the difference. Working in an agile way requires entirely new ways of thinking.
So how can businesses get both their IT teams and the wider organisation to understand and embrace agile ways of working? We believe there are three phases.
Short term: find ways to speed up value
Like any change project, a shift to agile needs to start with a vision of what’s possible. That means looking at where processes could go better. The key thing here is to think time, not just money. On most projects, no one’s looking at the time it takes to do things, but this is a major way to create value. It’s essential too. Business leaders estimate that their companies will need to operate almost one-third faster in five years than they do today to remain competitive.
That’s certainly true for a large global consumer goods organisation with whom we worked. They were finding it hard to bring innovations to market, with long development timelines and slow decision-making processes. So they started a programme to improve performance, using an agile approach. They began by looking at the inefficiency of the existing process, identifying moments where decision-making could be streamlined, then set up some pilots. They quickly saw the benefits. The first phase of innovation went down from an average nine months to six weeks. That gave them the ability to process six times as many ideas – and it helped to keep the ideas relevant: shorter timelines meant that bigger and better ideas could get to market earlier.
Medium term: break out of silos
Agile working lets organisations create project teams including everyone needed to deliver a certain outcome. For the business, this means a shift from a static operating model to a flexible, virtual model – responsive to change and disruption. It’s not only better for the customer; it’s better for staff, who get to enjoy much more varied work. Finance people don’t just need to work in finance. HR people don’t work only in HR. It stops talented professionals from being stuck in the back office and puts them on the frontline of the business, closer to customer needs and contributing more directly to better outcomes.
Long term: lasting structural change
When businesses embrace agile working longer-term, they need to rethink the whole organisation. Traditional finance and governance models aren’t built for agile working, so businesses will need to play catch up, restructuring themselves accordingly. Internal audits will help to identify the business processes that need to change to support agile working. That in turn will help to support better outcomes.
Yet in seeking to make their overall business more agile, leaders mustn’t lose sight of using agile to continuously improve their IT departments. Many organisations grapple with legacy systems, and simply adding bolt-ons doesn’t make for a joined-up experience. This phase will need a willingness to look further ahead and invest accordingly. But by this point, businesses should have seen some returns from agile working, making it easier to make the case for structural change.
Agile working is here to stay. And although many businesses have yet to embrace it across the whole organisation, those who do successfully develop agile beyond the IT department are in the best possible position for success. It’s time for IT professionals to become evangelists, to help colleagues learn from their experience and, at the same time, be open to seeing agile applied in new ways.
Considering an agile transformation? Don’t think for too long – speeding up time to value (the outcome from working in an agile way) is critical. That itself is agile!
Sam Bunting is an agile expert at PA Consulting